As the laps wore on and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car kept running up front Friday night at Richmond Raceway, a familiar and unpleasant feeling began to come over him.
“A lot of those expectations I hated about this job started creeping back in,” he said. “And I’m sitting there going, ‘Nooo, don’t let this happen! Nooo! Don’t fuckin’ let this happen! Don’t get so freaking caught up in this that you make yourself miserable that you don’t win.'”
Pressure and stress were two sensations that robbed Earnhardt of so much joy in his racing career. And in his one-off return to NASCAR — fulfilling a sponsor commitment that helped his team survive — he wanted nothing to do with those feelings.
This was supposed to be carefree and fun, the opportunity to get out there one more time and even take a picture with newborn daughter Isla at his car before the race. A top-10 finish would certainly be enough to satisfy him, Earnhardt figured.
But as the competitive side took over and he realized he might actually win the race — he led a race-high 96 laps, after all — that happiness threatened to disappear.
As it turned out, Earnhardt didn’t win; a caution with 30 laps to go took away what seemed like a sure victory. One bad restart on the outside lane later, and he had to settle for a fourth-place finish.
But damn if he didn’t enjoy it.
“No expectations, no pressure, no points,” he said. “I could try any line I wanted. I could save the tires if I wanted to, and if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. I just felt a little more free.”
Earnhardt was asked about the last time he enjoyed himself this much in a race car. He thought for a moment, then replied: “When I was racing Late Models in the 90s, probably.”
There was a true sense of glee behind his smile Friday night. He didn’t just get out on the Richmond track, survive and make laps. Earnhardt proved to himself he still had his driving tools — even the peripheral vision and sense of where the other cars were, which he worried would be gone after a long layoff.
“The sport is elite, the drivers are elite,” he said. “This ain’t a hobby. You just can’t assume you’re going to miss eight months or 10 months and come right in here and win or run in the top five.
“I ran this race last year (while) racing in the Cup Series and I ran ninth or some shit. So it’s not easy to come in here and run well.”
But he did, and he also had enough fun to try it again sometime next year — perhaps again at Richmond or even Atlanta, he said. There’s just one catch: He wants to make sure his new job at NBC Sports is always the priority. And he felt a step behind with broadcasting on Friday because he was so focused on his own racing.
“Imagine (the racing media) showing up on race day without being here all weekend and trying to cover the race without all the knowledge you gain on Friday and Saturday,” he said. “That broadcast deal is something I want to work for a really long time, so I don’t want to take anything away from that.”