BRISTOL, Tenn. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. soaked in every high and low in his return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Friday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
A two-time champion some 25 years ago, Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t get many opportunities to get back to racing on the national-series level since his Cup Series retirement after the 2017 season. The Class of 2021 NASCAR Hall of Famer has returned to Xfinity competition at least once a year from stepping away, though, and maximized his most recent endeavor, leading 47 laps and running well inside the top five for much of the evening.
Even a night that went aflame — literally, as an electrical issue sparked a fire beneath his steering column and near his feet inside the final 30 laps, leading him to a 30th-place DNF — couldn’t erase his post-race giddiness.
“I just know one thing — I didn’t cause no problems tonight for nobody,” Earnhardt Jr. said with a laugh. “That was a big deal for me. I didn’t wanna come in here and screw up somebody’s championship. Everybody would be like, ‘That damn Junior don’t need to be out there!'”
Unsurprisingly, Earnhardt Jr. proved once again he indeed still belongs in a race car. Friday marked his first race at Bristol since 2017 and latest overall since an appearance at Martinsville Speedway in April 2022, when he qualified 30th before rallying to finish 11th.
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It was qualifying that had Earnhardt — a 50-time winner across Cup and Xfinity competition — concerned at Bristol. That 30th-place qualifying effort at Martinsville barely saw him advance into the race.
“I ain’t never been as nervous as I was (Friday),” he said. “I’ve raced my whole career locked into every race I’ve ever went to, and I’ve never really had to sweat it out or worry about something happening and missing the show. And that’s not fun. It’s the worst feeling ever. …
“I did not feel like I got enough laps in practice to understand nothing. I felt like everything was way ahead of me, and I was way behind on what I was seeing and processing mentally — but that was the way it was when I came here as a full-timer. I mean, this place just takes time to get up to speed. Your brain ain’t processing everything that’s coming at it visually, but it eventually slows down.
“So I feel like that was probably as nervous as I’ve ever been. Probably more nervous than my very first (Cup) qualifying attempt at Charlotte as a rookie. I mean, I’m thinking back, and there’s nothing more gut-wrenching than wondering if you might go home, missing a race. I ain’t never failed to qualify for a race, and being presented with that reality was frightening.”
Luckily for Junior — and his swath of loyal fans — that fear was short-lived. His lap at 120.596 mph was good for 15th on the starting grid, plenty quick enough to make the show and charge to the front.
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Earnhardt Jr. lingered inside the top four much of the evening before eventually nabbing the lead. These days, he’s hesitant to set any sort of lofty expectations for himself, the result of doing this once yearly since 2018, although he’s scheduled to return a second time at Homestead-Miami Speedway in just over four short weeks. Since making these annual starts, Junior has viewed himself as a fifth- to 12th-place runner. He would have been plenty happy with that Friday. Turns out he was destined for a little better than that.
“I guess if you aim low, you’ll never be disappointed,” Junior said. “I don’t set high expectations, especially at this point in my life, except for certain things. But when it comes to racing, I try not to really get too competitive because when I get competitive, I get miserable, even when I’m running well. These races, for me, are about just coming back and smelling the smells and hearing the sounds and getting reminded what’s going on inside the car and what a driver thinks about.
“I feel like that the further I get removed from my driving career, the harder it is to be a broadcaster and an analyst,” continued Earnhardt, a regular in NBC Sports’ NASCAR commentary booth. “And so running these races is all about learning and relearning really and reminding yourself what a driver thinks and goes through in certain situations and just so that stuff’s fresh on your mind.”
He certainly got the full experience on Friday night when an electrical short inside the cockpit led to a fire near the floorboard of the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
“We had a positive wire short up in the top of the dash, and the casing on the wire melted down onto the leg brace and caught the foam in the leg brace and the cloth cover of the leg brace on fire, so it burnt the leg off my uniform. It was like another lap, and I was probably gonna be blistered up.
“No burns on my leg. Just barely escaped,” Junior smirked. “I was disappointed to have to get out. We were gonna run fourth or better.”
At age 48 — 49 by the time he races again on Oct. 21 at Homestead-Miami — how often Earnhardt will make these one-off appearances back in one of NASCAR’s national series remains to be determined. But Friday served as a good shot in the arm that he can still be competitive when he zips up the fire suit, pulls on the helmet and straps into one of his team’s quick Chevrolets.
“I mean, I’ll run as long as I can. I like running one here and one there,” he said. “I mean, certainly not until I’m 60 years old. But I think I still feel young. I overachieved tonight in my eyes in terms of how I ran, so I guess that gave me some confidence to try to do one here and one there for a couple more years.”
Oh, and he still got to visit Victory Lane — thanks to JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier, who wheeled the No. 7 Chevrolet to the win.
“I’m real happy for Justin,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Winning at Bristol is such an amazing accomplishment for any driver. This kind of ranks up there with Darlington in terms of being a driver’s race track. You’ve got to be tough and move around and defense and be on the offense and gotta (have your) head on a swivel out there. All the good drivers seem to do well and figure this place out. It’s not a place where you get any flukes. Proud for him.”