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Dale Earnhardt Jr. differentiates emotions toward one-off, full-time racing

Like a birthday or a holiday, this, too, happens on a yearly basis: Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters a NASCAR race.

It used to happen literally all the time. Earnhardt, a 26-time winner in the Cup Series, competed in every race in every season but two for 18 years. That’s 626 events as a full-timer.

His last win in the sport dates back to 2016 – in the Xfinity Series, where he’ll make his annual appearance Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

“I don’t really daydream too much about the result,” Earnhardt said Friday on a Zoom teleconference. “We’ll just see how it all shakes out. But I hope I get to run all the laps and I hope I get to have fun. I hope I’m reminded why I love it and then also why I don’t do it anymore.”

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Earnhardt retired from full-time NASCAR racing after the 2017 Cup Series season. Since then, he has participated in one Xfinity Series race per year. In 2018, he raced at Richmond and finished fourth. He then placed fifth at Darlington Raceway in 2019 and at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2020.

On Saturday, Earnhardt is slated to start 30th in the Go Bowling 250 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It’ll mark his 143rd career Xfinity Series start. Somehow that triple-digit tally doesn’t relax him heading into the event. If anything, he’s more nervous now than when he suited up regularly.

“I think when you race every single week, when you did bad, you had an opportunity next weekend to fix it,” Earnhardt said. “If you had a bad weekend, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t good and you took it home with you and you spent the rest of the week being miserable. But you knew that you were going back to the track with a chance to redeem yourself and a chance to peel that layer off, that layer of disappointment off. And that was always there every single week.

“I haven’t had a bad experience in these one-race-a-year deals. I haven’t had a bad experience yet, so I don’t know how that’s going to feel when we have a bad race. If I’m going to go, ‘Man, I gotta wait a whole year to fix this,’ that might make things a little difficult.”

Saturday’s reaction is still a TBD, but looks rather promising. In 36 Cup Series starts, Earnhardt won three times at Richmond. He tallied 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes overall. In the Xfinity Series, he actually has four wins in eight starts – the most recent coming in 2016 in his No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Regardless of the outcome, there’s always next year.

Because Earnhardt doesn’t plan on racing more than once a year, nor does he want to.

“But, you know, I do miss it,” Earnhardt said. “I miss driving. I daydream about driving full time and what that would be like and, boy, I miss it.”