Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Texas Motor Speedway’s active leader in consecutive starts with 28, but that streak will end with Sunday’s AAA Texas 500.
NASCAR’s most popular driver announced in early September that his 2016 season would be cut short as he recovers from concussion symptoms.
That’s a bummer to Earnhardt’s loyal fan base who come to TMS to watch him, but there are still plenty of No. 88 flags flying around the complex. Earnhardt won’t be a forgotten man this weekend, to say the least.
“It’s disappointing ’cause I’ve been trying to figure out who the heck I’m going to root for,” said Lisa Durst, a fan from Grapevine. “So I’m going to go for Chase Elliott ’cause I’m originally from Georgia. We grew up watching Wild Bill [Elliott’s dad], so we’re going to go for Chase this time.
“But I’m hoping Junior is back next year and feeling better. … He’ll be running in my heart and in my mind.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Sprint Cup race in April 2000 at Texas.
Earnhardt, who turned 42 last month, has made it clear that he intends to race again. There’s no reason he shouldn’t, either, considering he’s among the top contenders every week.
Earnhardt finished second in the spring race at Texas, one of his five top-5s in 18 starts this season. His success at Texas is no secret, as it’s the home of his first Cup and Xfinity Series wins.
Earnhardt has run in every Cup race at Texas since 2000.
“Obviously you’d love to have Junior in the field and running,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “Hopefully he’s on the road to recovery. Injuries happen in sports.”
Gossage didn’t have any numbers as to how Earnhardt’s absence might affect attendance this weekend. But it certainly doesn’t bode well to have the sport’s biggest name missing.
“Monitoring social media and just anecdotally it’s an issue,” Gossage said. “But it’s hard to say why somebody doesn’t buy a ticket. They don’t talk to you or let you know the reason.”
It’s easy to see Earnhardt’s reach and appeal, though, in driving around the complex and seeing No. 88 more than any other driver’s number.
Fans such as Durst are rabid Earnhardt supporters. She rattled off a list of Earnhardt items she has, ranging from shower curtains to toothbrushes to a Christmas tree.
6 Top 10 finishes for Earnhardt in 2016 before he ended his season because of concussion symptoms.
“You name it, I got it … except underwear,” Durst said, laughing. “I need Dr. Phil’s help is how big of a fan I am. Love him. Loved his dad. Would love to meet him one day. That would be awesome.”
One of Durst’s highlights as a fan was seeing Earnhardt take the checkered flag for the first time as a Cup driver in April 2000 at Texas.
That goes for several fans who love the No. 88 Chevrolet, which will be driven by Alex Bowman on Sunday.
“Oh, I hate to see Junior out, but hope he gets back in a hurry,” said Gary Batten, who made the trek to TMS from Mission. “Looking forward to seeing him back at Daytona [in February]. We’re all looking forward to seeing Junior get the championship that he needs.”
For Texas, this is the first Cup race in its history that an Earnhardt won’t be in the field. Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s grandson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s nephew, could have kept that streak intact but isn’t in the field.
Jeffrey Earnhardt’s two rides this season have been the No. 32 Ford, which will be driven by Joey Gase, and the No. 83 Toyota, which will be driven by Matt DiBenedetto.
“You wish you had a field full of Earnhardts and Pettys and Allisons and so forth,” Gossage said. “Those families have a rich history of racing, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
AAA Texas 500
1 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/Ch. 5