Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t feel any obligation to stay in NASCAR just because he’s the most popular driver.
That should make the sport’s executives uneasy.
Stars are the lifeblood of NASCAR, and household names such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have walked away in recent years. The 42-year-old Earnhardt doesn’t seem far behind, and neither does 41-year-old Jimmie Johnson.
“I only race cars ’cause it’s fun,” Earnhardt said on Thursday as the headliner at Texas Motor Speedway’s media day at Gilley’s.
“I just enjoy working with my team and my guys, the camaraderie and the friendships. I just enjoy the relationships and friendships and that’s why I drive. Obviously we’ve got a big fan base that has a lot of fun when we do well, so you’d like to be out there and run well while you’re doing it.”
There’s no questioning Earnhardt’s reach and what he means to the sport. He missed the last 18 races last season because of concussion-like symptoms, and his absence was noticeable at every track, including TMS in November.
His presence is felt just as much the other way, too, and TMS took full advantage of landing him for its media day. The track made it a public event, and fans were clearly thrilled to partake in the action.
I only race cars ’cause it’s fun. ... I just enjoy the relationships and friendships, and that’s why I drive.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He’s the biggest name in the sport without question,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “To have him here on media day, which is really important for our sport, because this is a strong market. … And I’d like to think we’ll forever be linked and connected to Dale Jr.”
Yes, Texas will be. It’s the track where Earnhardt captured his first Xfinity Series and Cup wins and has contended ever since.
That’s something that will always connect the two.
As Earnhardt put it, “You never forget where you won your first race and neither do your fans. So I always look forward to coming here. This is a track that really puts on a good show. Happy every time we come here and expect to do well.”
Earnhardt hasn’t done too well so far this season, failing to post a top-10 run in the opening five races.
Maybe Texas will be the track where he jump-starts it, much like he jump-started his career at TMS with his first Cup win in April 2000.
In the 27 races at Texas since his win, Earnhardt has 16 top-10s, including three runner-ups. But he’s yet to return to Victory Lane.
Some good runs and great cars I thought should’ve won races here.
Earnhardt Jr., on why he hasn’t won again at Texas Motor Speedway since his first Cup win
“Certainly would’ve thought we’d have a few by now,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some good, close opportunities. Some good runs and great cars I thought should’ve won races here.
“I don’t know how close we are to getting the next one. You just keep showing up. I think we’re a team that can win pretty much anywhere we go.”
Earnhardt paused and smiled, before adding: “A lot of teams like that on the circuit, which is the problem.”
That explains why five drivers have won the first five races.
But the sport is better off when Earnhardt is the one celebrating at the end. He’s done it a lot in his career, winning 26 times, which make him a Hall of Famer, regardless of his name.
I have no concerns about the future of this sport as far as star power or personalities.
But his name is what keeps NASCAR on the map and, whenever he departs, the sport must hope others will have emerged.
Earnhardt is confident that will happen. He pointed to drivers such as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and William Byron as future stars who will carry the sport forward.
“I have no concerns about the future of this sport as far as star power or personalities,” Earnhardt said. “I think there’s some real talented guys with great personalities. It’s just going to be a matter of time before their fan bases develop. Larson is a really, really cool guy. Chase is too, and William.
“I feel confident about the personalities.”
In the meantime, fans should soak in every Earnhardt moment. He said before the season that if he won the coveted season championship that has eluded him, he’d consider going out on top.
Earnhardt may be obligated to do that for himself. Nobody could argue with that decision.
O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
at Texas Motor Speedway
12:30 p.m. April 9, KDFW/4