With only two races remaining in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup Series career, the odds are increasing that a rain-shortened race two years ago at Phoenix International Raceway might stand as the final win of his career.
That might seem sort of weird — Jeff Gordon’s last win was a stirring victory at Martinsville and Tony Stewart’s final victory came after he bumped Denny Hamlin out of the way at Sonoma — and doesn’t really fit into any kind of storybook ending.
But don’t worry, Junior Nation: If that was it, your driver celebrated the victory like it was his last.
“After our dry spell (three winless seasons from 2009-11), every win after that I celebrated it and thought about it being my last win,” he said Friday. “The Talladega win (in 2015), the Daytona 500 (in 2014), the July Daytona race (in 2015), Martinsville (in 2014), here — every one of them I was thinking it might be the last.”
There have been only two rain-shortened races in Phoenix history: Earnhardt’s win two years ago and Rusty Wallace’s October 1998 victory here. So Earnhardt isn’t bummed about the circumstances of what may be his last win — he’s happy about it.
“I felt lucky we were running good enough to win the race,” he said. “Greg (Ives) had done some pit strategy that cycled us into the lead at the particular point when the rain came. And I was thinking, ‘Man, that is how it’s supposed to work.’ You know, your crew chief is supposed to have that vision and, man, he had it that day.
“I was so proud of Greg and I felt lucky. It’s great to back into (a win) every once in awhile, or luck into them every once in a while. I have been on the other end of that where you felt like you should have won the race and don’t for some odd reason. So I was feeling like, ‘Heck yeah.'”
Fortunately for Earnhardt, the Phoenix win came the week before Homestead — which he typically would spend at his house in Key West. So that meant Earnhardt “partied hard” after the victory, he said.
“We had a good time that night down at Captain Tony’s (saloon in Key West),” he said with a laugh. “That is where we went.”