RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a race-high 96 laps Friday night, but that wasn’t the coolest part of his lone Xfinity Series start of the 2018 season.
He got to kiss his 20-week-old daughter Isla before the event at Richmond Raceway. That is obviously something he didn’t get to do in his 19-year NASCAR Cup Series career that ended following the 2017 season.
“That was the best thing for me tonight,” Earnhardt said after his fourth-place finish. “Being with Isla, it meant a lot to me. She obviously won’t remember this but she will have the photographs and all that stuff.
“I don’t know what she’ll think about my racing career and how that will register with her since she won’t get to experience any of that. We had to have one race together. It was pretty important to me personally.”
Earnhardt had committed to sponsor Unilever to compete in this race prior to his decision to retire from Cup racing. He wouldn’t mind doing a race or two a year, possibly another at Richmond or at Atlanta, if the sponsorship package continues to support additional races for one of his JR Motorsports cars.
Now an analyst for NBC Sports, Earnhardt said qualifying second and leading laps — and even winning a stage for the first time in his career — felt good, but as he started feeling the pressure to win, it reminded him why he decided to retire.
“I think I’m going to get all I want out of one [race] each year,” Earnhardt said. “I came here and ran today to have fun. I had a lot of fun doing this, but it made me really feel good about the decision I made to go into the booth.
“I got up there [in the booth] for [Cup] practices today and I was wired, so energized to watch the Cup guys run and do what we do in the booth. … I had enough fun to do it again, but not on too regular of a basis. I don’t want to take away from what I’m trying to do in the booth and this takes away from it a little bit.”
With his retirement decision based on his having suffered multiple concussions, he said he didn’t have any issues during the race as far as peripheral version and felt comfortable in the race car.
The only thing he didn’t feel great about? He tried to just have fun but lost the race with a lousy restart while second with 25 laps left. Christopher Bell ended up winning, followed by Ross Chastain, Daniel Hemric, Earnhardt and Matt Tifft. Earnhardt was the only JR Motorsports car in the top-5.
“I wanted to do everything I got to do,” Earnhardt said. “And right around three-quarters of the way through that race, I’m like, ‘If I don’t win, now I’m going to be disappointed,’ and I’m going to back myself into a corner with my expectations getting too high.
“It’s easy to be disappointed we didn’t win because we should have. But I didn’t do a good job on that one restart, I was on the outside of the 2 [of Tifft] and just spun the tires.”
Earnhardt said he had the most fun since he raced late models before embarking on a NASCAR career in 1997. He didn’t seem to miss what he called the “cutthroat” feeling in the Cup garage.
“As I started running so well, a lot of those expectations that I hated about this job started creeping back in,” Earnhardt said. “I’m sitting there going, ‘No. Don’t let this happen.’
“I’m like, ‘Don’t get yourself so freaking caught up in this that you make yourself miserable if you don’t win.'”