BRISTOL, Tenn. — The oldest driver in the Xfinity Series field at Bristol Motor Speedway was transported back in time Friday and then leapt forward to see his future after a detour at Victory Lane.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who at 48 was nearly a decade ahead of the second-oldest driver in the field, said he had never felt as nervous as he did before Friday’s race, going back to when he made his first Cup start all age of 24 years. 1999.
As easily as he reflected on the start of his Cup career, he looked ahead to what might come next and saw other Xfinity races beyond this season.
It was 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 having to be helped out of his No. 1 Chevrolet. 88 by a member of another team’s pit crew.
The evening ended with Earnhardt, the lower right leg of his white uniform scorched by fire, riding one of his JR Motorsports cars as Justin Allgaier took it all the way to Victory Lane.
“I was so disappointed that we couldn’t finish where we wanted,” said Earnhardt, who placed 30th after leading 47 laps. “At the same time, I was happy that our car won. I couldn’t wait to see Justin. I couldn’t wait to tell him how proud and happy I was.
The day didn’t start well for Earnhardt, who wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the field and had to make it through qualifying.
“I never had to…sweat or worry about something happening and missing the show,” he said. “It’s not funny. It’s the worst feeling ever.”
Earnhardt said he was more nervous Friday than he had been in his attempt to start his first Cup in 1999, when he had to pass nine cars to get into the 43-car field for the Coca-Cola 600.
On Friday he reiterated his commitment to continue racing beyond this season.
“I’m going to race 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 to run one here and one there, but certainly not until I’m 60.
“I still feel young. Tonight I outperformed in my eyes in terms of how I ran. I guess I’ve built up some confidence to try and do one here and one there for another couple of years.
Earnhardt admits the last two races have dented some of his confidence.
He finished 11th at Martinsville in his only Xfinity start in 2022 and was 14th at Richmond in his only 2021 Series start.
“The last two races really made me ask, ‘Damn, should I not do this again?’” Earnhardt said. “I really get nothing from running 15th, struggling and being frustrated. Then you go and run well, “OK, maybe this is where I’m running.” Maybe I just need to race on certain tracks that I love.'”
Earnhardt said he thought the fire was due to rubber buildup on the hoses, but the smoke was getting worse inside the car.
“I looked at the leg brace and it was on fire,” Earnhardt said. “I felt it pinching my leg. So I thought, “Well, I can’t go on.” If I had continued, I think he would have really burned me.
Earnhardt feared that once it slowed the fire would intensify in the car. But he knew he couldn’t stay in the car much longer.
“I was coming down pit road with the window net down and I was looking at the pits to see which group was paying attention. That’s where I would have stopped.
After exiting the car, he watched most of the final laps before a mandatory stop at the in-house service center. He was quickly checked and found Allgaier’s car on pit road. He got in and rode on the driver’s side door, while Allgaier’s father rode on the passenger door to Victory Lane.
It was just like how team members went all the way to Victory Lane in NASCAR. For Earnhardt, who has a passion for the past, there was no better way to end the night than this.