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Junior Admits to Soft Spot for IMS during Preparation for Final Brickyard Start

As NASCAR’s largest fan following savors every last moment of a career coming to an end, Dale Earnhardt Jr. concedes he hasn’t been too nostalgic about his farewell tour.

“Junior” hasn’t been competitive enough to slow down and appreciate these final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races. He’s 21st in the points and working feverishly with his Hendrick Motorsports crew to find more speed in the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet as a 18th and final season heads down the proverbial last straightaway.

But being back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400, in which he’ll start 13th on Sunday, stirs the sentimentality in Earnhardt.

He’s been racing at this prestigious track since 2000, and a Saturday practice run reminded him to enjoy the surroundings and the pure joy of racing as well as appreciate the Brickyard’s storied history. Deliberately choosing the best words to describe his affinity for IMS, Earnhardt’s earnest candor was a reminder of why fans love him so much.

“What I’ll miss the most is the feeling that you get when you come into this racetrack,” he said. “When you walk through Gasoline Alley and you’re in the F1 garage and so forth, just the feeling that you get when you know what’s happened here, you know who’s raced here, who's been here.

“I was just thinking about that in practice, going down the back straightaway, about all the names that went down that straightaway. If you could go back in time and just experience everything that’s happened here, it’s so overwhelming to think about. So I’ll miss that.”

The son of legendary seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt realized at an early age the family name earned him fans before he had accomplished anything in racing. He recalled autograph requests as far back as when he was racing a late model in Myrtle Beach.

Now 42, he’s been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 times — every year since 2006, including last season despite the fact he missed 18 races due to a concussion. His father received the honor once, posthumously after his 2001 death in a Daytona 500 crash.

Granted, Junior’s racing resume falls short of his father, whose 76 career wins rank eighth on the all-time list. But two of Junior’s 26 career Cup wins came in the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014 (his father won the race once).

“My dad had so many fans, and this was really exciting for them to have another Earnhardt,” Junior said of his arrival in Cup racing. “Then when everything happened with dad’s death, that certainly changed a lot of things as far as how the fans feel and how they react.

“We gained a giant following without ever having done much, but I’d like to think that we did good holding onto it and growing it. We got in front of a lot. We worked it, and we worked it. We made an effort to get in front of people who didn’t know racing. We were able to get into some mainstream publications and so forth that a lot of drivers didn’t have access to. We did that not only for our own benefit but we tried to help grow our fan base.”

Some thought Junior should be like Senior, the menacing persona known as “The Intimidator.” But he was his own man.

“That wasn’t going to happen, so I lost some of those (fans),” Junior said. “But we gained a lot of people for how we carried ourselves and represented ourselves throughout my career. I feel like we did some good things the last 18 years.”

Dale Sr. won the second Brickyard 400 in 1995, but Junior has had a humbling history at IMS. His best finish in 16 starts was fourth in 2012, and that’s his only top five. He’s been sixth twice, ninth and 10th.

That makes his respect for IMS all the more genuine. While other drivers wouldn’t be blamed for dreading another start in a race that has been so frustrating, Earnhardt sounds excited to have one more run.

“It’s such a special place; it’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I’m so proud of Daytona and it means so much to me, but what’s happened here (at IMS) is a little bit bigger as far as what’s happened here in the last 100 years. It’s a little bit bigger than all of us. It never gets old coming here because of that.”

IMS President Doug Boles presented Earnhardt with a No. 8 grid block from the old track scoring pylon. That was Junior’s original car number, and also where his father started and finished in Junior’s Brickyard debut in 2000, which also was his dad’s last start at IMS.

“Thanks for everything you’ve done for us,” Boles said. “I’ve been pretty vocal since you decided you were going to retire. I’m not supposed to do this, but I’ve told everybody that I want Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win this race. I think it would be cool to have you in the history books with your dad and all of the other guys who have done so much for our sport and this place. I’ll be wearing my Dale Earnhardt Jr. stuff on Sunday, and best of luck to you.”

The Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 starts at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday. Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for all 2017 IMS events, including the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400, and for more information on all events.

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