BRISTOL, Tenn. — The oldest driver in the Xfinity Series field at Bristol Motor Speedway was transported back in time Friday and then flashed forward to see his future after a side trip to Victory Lane.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who at 48 years old had nearly a decade on the next oldest driver in the field, said he had never felt nerves like he did before Friday’s race, going back to when he made his first Cup start at age 24 in 1999.
Just as easily as he reflected upon the beginning of his Cup career, he looked ahead to what could be next and saw additional Xfinity races beyond this season.
It made for an eventful Friday for Earnhardt, who also led part of the Xfinity race before a fire inside his car led to him stopping on pit road and being helped out of his No. 88 Chevrolet by a pit crew member from another team.
The night ended with Earnhardt, the bottom right leg of his white uniform singed by the fire, riding on one of his JR Motorsports cars as Justin Allgaier drove it to Victory Lane.
“I was just so disappointed we didn’t get to finish where we wanted to,” said Earnhardt, who placed 30th after leading 47 laps. “At the same time, I was happy about our car winning. I couldn’t wait to see Justin. Couldn’t wait to tell him how proud and happy I was.”
The day didn’t start as well for Earnhardt, who wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the field and had to make it via qualifying.
“I’ve never had to … sweat it out or worry about something happening and missing the show,” he said. “That’s not fun. It’s the worst feeling ever.”
Earnhardt said he was more nervous Friday than he was attempting to make his first Cup start in 1999 when he had to outqualify nine cars to make the 43-car field for the Coca-Cola 600.
Friday, he reaffirmed his commitment to continue to race beyond this season.
“I’ll run as long as I can,” said Earnhardt, who will make his second and final start of the Xfinity season Oct. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I like running one here and one there, but certainly not til I’m 60 years old.
“I still feel young. I overachieved tonight in my eyes in terms of how I ran. I guess I gained some confidence to try to do one here and one there for a couple more years.”
Earnhardt admits the last couple of races had chipped away some of his confidence.
He finished 11th at Martinsville in his only Xfinity start in 2022 and was 14th at Richmond in his only series start of 2021.
“The last couple of races had me really wondering, ‘Damn, do I need to not do this anymore?’” Earnhardt said. “I’m really not getting nothing out of running 15th and struggling and being frustrated. Then you go run good, ‘OK, maybe it’s where I’m racing. Maybe I just need to run at certain tracks I love.’”
Earnhardt said he thought the fire was from rubber buildup on the pipes, but the smoke was getting worse inside the car.
“I looked down at the leg brace and it was on fire,” Earnhardt said. “I felt it stinging my leg. So I thought, ‘Well, I can’t keep going.’ If I kept going, I think it would have burned me really bad.”
Earnhardt feared that once he slowed the fire would intensify in the car. But he knew he couldn’t stay in the car much longer.
“I was going down pit road with the window net down, and I was looking over at the pit stalls to see which group was paying attention. That’s where I was going to stop.”
After exiting the car, he watched much of the final laps before a mandatory stop to the infield care center. He was quickly checked out and found Allgaier’s car on pit road. He climbed on and rode on the driver side door, while Allgaier’s father rode on the passenger side door to Victory Lane.
It was just like how team members used to ride to Victory Lane in NASCAR. For Earnhardt, who carries a passion for the past, there was no better way to cap his night than that.