Dale Jr. nets top-five run in Xfinity one-off at Homestead, contemplates racing future

Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted to carrying a bundle of nerves in the days leading up to his lone NASCAR Xfinity Series race of the season, saying that the mix of anticipation and anxiety made him “difficult to be around.” Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he made the most of this year’s one shot, then contemplated how many more he might have.

Earnhardt finished fifth in Saturday’s Hooters 250, completing a competitive drive in a two-lap dash to the end in the JR Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet. He led four laps and stayed entrenched among the top five and top 10 for the majority of the sweltering day at the 1.5-mile Florida track.

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The 45-year-old driver retired from full-time competition with his final NASCAR Cup Series start at Homestead back in 2017. But since then, he’s stayed involved through ownership of his JR Motorsports operation, which has fielded cars for Earnhardt once a year as a driver-owner.

The results have been staggeringly consistent — fourth at Richmond in 2018, fifth at Darlington last year and Saturday’s fifth-place run. But Earnhardt wondered aloud how many more of these might be on his schedule, as he balances team ownership with his roles as an NBC Sports broadcaster and a husband and father of two.

“I think right now it’s just going to stay the same,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t want to do any more, that’s for sure. I can say that with confidence. I don’t know how many more of these I’ll do. This might be the last one, and this ain’t no tease or anything like that. I’m not trying to be annoying about that. It’s a lot of a commitment, and I just … I don’t know. It’s getting to the point to where I’ve got to decide whether I’m helping things or I’m not helping the team, how can I help the team in other ways. I don’t know.

“I really enjoy it. I really do, but I think there’s got to be a point to where I decide to make the change to broadcasting entirely. With that said, being in the car today, I certainly learned a ton that’s going to help me in the (broadcast) booth. I’ve just got to think about it, and I certainly don’t want to run more. One is plenty and it’s a great series. We’ll just see how it goes. I guess it’s a tough question to answer.”

Earnhardt showed little signs of rust in his first race since last August, even without practice or qualifying with COVID-19 protocols still in place for essential personnel. The feeling of anticipation didn’t fully fade until he rolled off in pace laps and settled into a rhythm. That groove had him poised to finish as high as second until a late caution shuffled the order.

“I thought I knew what the drivers’ mindset might be in these type of situations over the last several weeks with no laps, no practice, just a lot of pressure,” Earnhardt said. “But I really underestimated it. It’s harder than I thought. It’s more anxiety than I imagined, so I was a little difficult to be around the last couple days, just having the anxiety of it. Leading up to getting in the car, I started feeling better, I guess, once they fired the motor and starting messing with things in the car. … I really started feeling comfortable at that point, but I worked myself up for the last 72 hours.”

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The next 72 hours for Earnhardt will wind up with finding out whether he’ll be included in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021. Earnhardt indicated he plans to record his “Dale Jr. Download” podcast Tuesday, reacting in real time to the release of the results at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

“Whether we are chosen to go into the Hall of Fame or not, I’m already honored and I think it’ll be a fun experience to sort of document through our podcast,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve said this from the start and I really feel it in my heart that everybody on that list belongs in there, and it doesn’t seem like at this point that there’s one more deserving than the other. To that respect, I’m young enough to wait my turn, and there’s a lot of names that are not on that list that need to be on that list, and we’re all going to argue that every year. But I’m just honored already.”