Martin Truex Jr. won the race and the NASCAR season championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but it was another Junior who won the hearts and the day.
He needed no trophy for validation. It was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his farewell race, his last as a full-time driver before retiring, that topped the Homestead marquee in terms of emotion and historical heft.
Earnhardt did not qualify as one of the Championship 4 drivers running for the title Sunday, and he would finish the race in 21st place.
It felt like he’d won.
A huge, pulsing crowd of media and fans with pit passes crowded his red No. 88 Chevrolet as he finished the race and climbed from his cockpit to cheers. The pungent aroma of burning rubber filled the night air. He and longtime car owner Rick Hendrick embraced. Junior hugged his pregnant wife, then his mother. His pit crew stood on the others side of the car. The crowd cheered on.
“I’m going to have a beer and chill!” he said to no one in particular, a can of Budweiser handed to him.
There were no sad tears from Junior for this milestone day, this closing of a major chapter. There was gratitude, though.
The son of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. would never live up to his father’s success. Junior in 18 seasons on the sport’s main circuit never did win a season championship, but he did win two Daytona 500s among 26 race wins, along with winning a legion of fans who voted him Most Popular Driver the past 14 consecutive years.
Those fans may have been an inheritance from his father, at first, but Junior earned them over time in the way he handled the burden of his surname and its long shadow. The kid done good. He leaves content.
“Man, when I was little I never thought I’d win a race or amount to this,” he said outside his car, fans still cheering. “I was so scared of what my life would be if it didn’t involve racing. I still can’t believe what did. I don’t feel worthy of all that happening.”
The iconic Dale Sr., of course, never had a farewell tour like Junior did this year, denied by tragedy. The father died after crashing on the track at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001. So race fans were not just saying farewell to Junior here Sunday. They were saying goodbye to the epic epoch of the Earnhardt imprint on NASCAR.
(Jeffrey Earnhardt, Junior’s nephew, runs in the Cup series. But at age 28 he has never won a race or even had a top-10 finish, showing no sign he will live up to the auspicious family name.)
Junior, 43, won’t disappear. He will move next year into NBC’s NASCAR broadcast booth and will continue to be a car owner in the secondary Xfinity series. In fact one of Junior’s cars, driven by William Byron, won the Xfinity crown Saturday at Homestead.
Earnhardt Jr. also may still race in a main-series event on occasion. He already has said he’d like to run at Homestead on Sunday next year. He loves the track and loves South Florida. He and wife Amy are building a vacation home in Key West.
This was the 16th consecutive year NASCAR has crowned its season champ at the track not quite an hour south of downtown Miami, and the fourth year in a row the Sunday finale sold out. And Junior’s final ride turned into from a race into a one-of-a-kind event.
An era just ended, and it creates a huge void for NASCAR. It isn’t the only one. Just the biggest.
The sport has lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now Earnhardt Jr., — transcendent stars all — to retirement in the past three years. Danica Patrick just announced she is done with full-time racing, too. Matt Kenseth does not have a ride next year. Jimmie Johnson is nearing the end.
NASCAR’s starpower is dimming as the sport enters a transition. Who’s next? Sunday’s Championship 4 on the day Dale Jr. said goodbye reflected the situation. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Truex Jr. all are stars, but not superstars, not transcendent stars.
The sport might never have another driver as popular as Junior.
During prerace driver introductions, Earnhardt enjoyed the longest, loudest ovation as he walked a long stage in front of the main grandstand. Throngs of fans also waited as he descended the stage’s steps, and he obliged dozens of fans seeking an autograph, photo or hug.
Later, just before the race, members of every other pit crew lined up along pit row in a reverent, moving tribute as Earnhardt’s No. 88 slowly passed, as if in a processional.
“The fans made all this possible,” Junior said Sunday. “Their support led to every opportunity I’ve ever had. It is all because of Junior Nation.”
That popularity will be a cornerstone of his legacy he created. But so will this:
Getting out when he did. Married with a baby on the way, and after dealing with persisting concussion issues, Earnhardt found the balance to understand his life is more than racing. Good for him.
“There are bigger things in life than what you do for a career. I hope being a race car driver doesn’t define me,” he said. “Your family and relationships with friends, those are things I’m proud of. I feel fortunate to have won races, but that was the icing on the cake. I really just wanted to be able to make a living doing this, so I surpassed my own expectations.”
The cheering surrounding him wouldn’t stop.
“I’m sittin’ here healthy,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., said, and smiled. “I feel blessed.”