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Earnhardt Jr.’s Xfinity return was an important personal moment

RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lone scheduled race of the season — a one-off Xfinity Series effort — was intended to be a flashback, a low-pressure return to NASCAR competition after his retirement from full-time racing last season. It was also intended to be enjoyable, a goal that Earnhardt reiterated in a pace-lap radio communication to his pit crew: “Let’s have some fun, man.”

After 250 laps Friday night at Richmond Raceway, the fun factor was a turning-back of the clock to long-ago days, a rekindling of memories planted nearly two decades earlier to the last time he’d enjoyed racing this much.

“When I was racing Late Models in the ’90s, probably,” Earnhardt said. “I had a lot of fun in the late ’90s running the Xfinity Series, but I didn’t know I was having fun. I didn’t know how good I had it.”

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Earnhardt had a sense of how good things could be by exceeding his own expectations in Friday night’s Go Bowling 250, where he led a race-high 96 laps before slipping to a fourth-place finish. The longtime fan favorite soaked in adoring cheers, spent time with his growing family and accepted well-wishes from many of his peers after the event.

It was an overflow of emotions for Earnhardt, who qualified second in a patchwork fifth JR Motorsports entry, then used a veteran’s poise to conserve his equipment and rise to the lead near the race’s midpoint. He picked up his first-ever stage victory and stayed solidly in contention, building a striking sense of anticipation that his one-race return could be a winner.

The apprehension wasn’t just the crowd’s. It was Earnhardt’s, too.

“I tried to come in here and just think, man, I really just want to have fun, I want to race, I want to do everything I’ve got to do,” he said. “Right around three-quarters of the way through that race, I’m like, man, if I don’t win, now I’m going to be disappointed. I done backed myself into a corner with my expectations getting so high. It’s easy to be disappointed that we didn’t win because we should (have).”

Those prospects held firm until Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet lost the race off pit road in the next-to-last caution period and faded with tire spin on a sprinkling of late restarts. Still, if there was any rust in his first race since last November, it barely showed.

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“If you think about it, when a guy steps out of, say a baseball player no matter what level takes months and months off and get back out there, they don’t just start and pick up right where they left off,” Earnhardt said. “The sport is elite, the drivers are elite and this ain’t a hobby. These guys are the best. Some of these guys in this field will be winning Cup races and championships one day. … You just can’t assume you’re going to miss eight months or 10 months and come right in here and win, much less run in the top five. My expectations were just to kind of be in the top 10.”

Though his competitive juices got going once the field went green, Earnhardt was loose in pre-race ceremonies, conversing with his wife, Amy, and doting on his 4-month-old daughter, Isla Rose. Two fans pierced the intimate family moment, yelling out “Slide job!” in a nod to the TV call that resonated in Earnhardt’s debut as a broadcaster for NBC Sports. Earnhardt made eye contact and grinned.

He’ll resume his primary duties from the television booth starting Saturday evening at Richmond. But for one night at least, the 43-year-old driver was rejuvenated, having the same sort of adventure as a kid trying to scratch out a career at dimly lit short tracks with his Late Model crew.

This time, though, he got to spend it with his wife and daughter, coming oh-so-close to creating scrapbook memories in Victory Lane.

“She obviously won’t remember this, but she’ll have the photographs and all that stuff,” Earnhardt said of his infant daughter. “I don’t know what she’ll think about my racing career and how that’ll register with her since she won’t get to experience any of it, but we got to have one race together and Amy wouldn’t miss it. Isla’s here. It was a pretty important moment for me, personally.”