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Dale Earnhardt Jr. at ease with final start this weekend

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his final weekly pre-race press conference Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, touching on a variety of subjects ranging from his health to his competitiveness to his championship pick as he prepares for his final scheduled start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, will step away from full-time competition in the series following Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He’ll remain deeply entrenched in the sport as co-team owner of JR Motorsports, which fields multiple entries in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, and through work with NBC, which broadcasts the second half of the NASCAR season.

“In the car, I just want to run all the laps,” Earnhardt said of Sunday’s season-ending, championship-determining race. “I want to finish the race in one piece. … Obviously you want to do as well as you can. But no matter where we finish, to be able to pull down pit road, stop the car and get out. Then see my guys and do all that. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have any kind of issue that would take us out of the event and not be able to finish.”

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The 2017 season is Earnhardt’s 18th as a full-time competitor. He’s a two-time champion in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, has 26 career victories in Monster Energy Series competition and is the winner of the series’ most popular driver award for 14 consecutive years.

After sitting out the final half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt announced on April 25 of this year that he would step down from full-time competition at year’s end. Asked if he had reconsidered the decision at any point this year, Earnhardt didn’t hesitate when answering.

“No, I don’t need to reconsider,” the 43-year-old said. “This is great timing for me. It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can. “And with Alex (Bowman) coming in behind, it’s just a great opportunity for him. It’s his time. And mine, in my heart, has ran its course.

“With everything we’ve been through, with the concussion and trying to come back, the emotion was man, I’m so glad I get to run this last year. It was always this is the last year. And I’m glad I get to run it.”

Bowman made 10 starts for the team while Earnhardt was sidelined in ’16, winning the pole in the fall race at Phoenix. He will take over full-time duties in the car beginning next season.

Neither Earnhardt nor his teammates, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne, made it to this year’s Championship 4 round here at Homestead.

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Earnhardt said he will be “Team Martin for this weekend for sure,” indicating his choice of champion is Furniture Row Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. The two were teammates earlier in their career at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Truex, Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) will compete for the championship on Sunday.

“He’s the guy,” Earnhardt said of Truex. “Me and Brad are great friends. I love to see Brad do well. But with what Martin, just as a driver, what he has been through it would just be awesome to see him put his name on that trophy.

“I don’t know how you put into words what it would mean for him to win. I don’t know how you describe what that means. It’s bigger than words.”

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In the day’s opening practice, Earnhardt started out fifth-fastest, but returned to the garage with engine issues.

Friday afternoon there’s qualifying, then two more practice sessions on Saturday.

Sunday, he’ll climb aboard his No. 88 for the final time.