Dale Earnhardt Jr. will return to the driver’s seat on Friday, and he insists he won’t worry about whether he will return to Victory Lane at Richmond Raceway.
Earnhardt, who retired from NASCAR Cup Series racing after the 2017 season, had already committed to running an Xfinity race in 2018 for sponsor Hellmann’s.
In his previous Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway, Earnhardt won in April 2016. He returns to the track in the JR Motorsports No. 88 car, and he won’t look at it as either a win or a failure.
“I don’t know if that will be my last time [racing NASCAR],” Earnhardt said. “I’m not dying to win. If I go dying to win and I don’t win, man, you can’t do that. You have to go in there and have fun.
“We have competitive stuff. We could win. The last time I raced there, I won. I know I’ve got a great shot at running well and having success, but it’s not worth doing if you don’t enjoy it. I’m going in there to make sure that I have fun.”
Earnhardt, now a TV analyst for NBC Sports, certainly doesn’t want to embarrass himself. He tested in a late model a couple of weeks ago at North Carolina’s Hickory Motor Speedway just to get the feel of driving a race car, something he hasn’t done since November.
“I miss driving,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t miss driving at the start of the year. Going to the races and watching and broadcasting, you see moments where you’re like, ‘Those guys are having fun and I’d love to get a little taste of that.’
“I’m just going to try to enjoy what happens that weekend, have fun in the race. … Hopefully, it goes well. I want to run all the laps.”
JR Motorsports driver Elliott Sadler said that on the flight to Las Vegas last week, Earnhardt talked about the late model test at Hickory and how he was fast and how good the car drove. He didn’t sound like a driver who just wants to run all the laps and have fun.
“He wants to go run good — he’s playing it down just in case,” Sadler said. “I’m going to tell you — he’s going to run good. That boy is good at Richmond. Look at his stats. … I believe he is going to go there and have a ball and have a chance to win.”
Mike Bumgarner, JR Motorsports race operations manager, will crew chief for Earnhardt and T.J. Majors will spot for him. Majors was Earnhardt’s spotter for several years, but Majors has moved to Team Penske to spot for Joey Logano. Because Logano isn’t driving in the Xfinity race, Majors got permission from Roger Penske to spot for Earnhardt.
“Thanks to Roger for being such a cool guy,” Earnhardt said.
While his focus will be on his race car and not his television duties, Earnhardt will still work for the network on Friday. He will serve as the in-race analyst, much the way NBCSN used Brendan Gaughan at Mid-Ohio. Earnhardt will give analysis during cautions and segment breaks at any opportunity where he feels comfortable.
He is not expected to do much, if anything, during the Cup practice session telecasts or the Cup qualifying telecast.
But doing some TV might help Earnhardt get through the day.
“I don’t want to sweat over every lap and how fast we are in practice and all those things and make it a miserable experience, because most race car drivers tend to do that if you’re not careful,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt doesn’t have any additional races planned, but he will keep the door open if a JR Motorsports sponsor wants him to race as part of a program that helps to land sponsorship for other JR Motorsports drivers.
“I really don’t know what our plans are going forward,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really have any initiative to drive a ton of races.
“So we’ll just kind of see what kind of opportunities there are down the road with the sponsorships and so forth that help the rest of the company.”
One thing Earnhardt has realized is that he doesn’t need to be racing to stay busy.
“I work so much more now than I did as a driver,” Earnhardt said. “We have so many things going on — stuff that I would sort of put on the shelf when I was driving. When I was driving, people would assume I had no time for anything else or I would focus on nothing, but everything else had to wait.
“Now that I don’t drive, we haven’t learned how to say no to anything. Anything that sounds good, we do it. We have a half-dozen projects going on right now that need something weekly.”