HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Not long after Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged from his car Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a Yeti cooler with a camouflage cushion appeared on his car’s rear decklid.
As crew members gathered around, beer was dispensed from the cooler. No one wearing a red-colored firesuit had their thirst go unquenched.
When a beer made its way to Junior, he and his team members all raised a can for a toast. After the cheers, Junior took a six-second sip.
His Cup Series career was officially over.
Sunday night was the final race in the 18-season career of the sport’s most popular driver. He finished 25th, two laps down, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the moment Junior wanted to share with his team after the race.
Junior said Friday that his goal for Sunday’s race was to run it to completion. He didn’t want an accident or a mechanical failure to ruin his day. He wanted to emerge from the car because the checkered flag had fallen. And because he wanted a beer with his family.
“I told them — that’s why I kept saying, ‘Man I hope I finish all the laps.’ I know it sounds ridiculous but that’s really why I was saying that,” Junior said on pit road. “Cause I told my guys — everyone says what are you going to miss the most and it’s my family. That’s my family. We are so close. I’ve been around this sport where it’s been hard to feel like someone believes in you but I’ve never doubted any of these guys’ belief in me as a driver. And that’s so important when you’re a race car driver.”
As Junior did television interviews after hugging his wife Amy and giving his helmet to car owner Rick Hendrick, the camo cooler quickly emptied. It got relegated to stepstool status for a crew member soaking in the scene. A backup cooler — same brand, this time olive green — took its place atop the car.
Minutes after the backup cooler appeared on the car, some crew members called for the backup cooler — not realizing it was already being utilized. As Junior tended to the media mob around his car, the beer kept flowing. It was a group of buddies gathering around the bar for some after-work beers. Except in this place, the bar was a car. And the car was sitting in pit lane at Homestead.
“I told them, I said the one thing I want to do is finish the race and have some beer ready and we’re going to drink a beer together,” Junior said. “That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what to I do when I get out of the car. Well, I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them. And so it closes it up for us. Some closure I guess.”
After he turned from the television cameras, Junior got a few moments to come face-to-face with his crew over Budweiser, the beer brand that sponsored him for eight seasons and became synonymous with his rise in the sport. It was appropriately cold to Junior’s standards.
“Hey, this is some cold-ass beer,” he said.
After a concussion sidelined him for the second-half of the 2016 season, Junior returned to the Cup Series for another season because he wanted to end his Cup Series career on his own terms. Even though he officially announced his retirement in April, he admitted Friday he got into his car at Daytona in February knowing full well it would be the last time he’d be competing in the Daytona 500.
That Daytona 500 ended with a crash — a disappointing finish, but also a reassuring one. He had no ill-effects afterward after struggling with vision and balance issues in his recovery from his fourth concussion suffered in June of 2016.
The rest of this season has been a disappointment, too, at least when it comes to on-track performance. Junior’s finish at Homestead was his 15th result outside of the top 20. He had just eight top-10 finishes and will officially finish 21st in the points standings.
But things have blossomed for Junior off the track. He and wife Amy are expecting a daughter in the spring of 2018. His Xfinity Series team had three of the four contenders for the 2017 championship, and one of them, William Byron, won the title. And Junior’s got his post-racing career figured out, too. He’ll be in the booth for NBC Sports in 2018 for its Cup Series broadcasts.
As the second cooler emptied, the gathering at the bar showed no signs of willingly stopping, though a couple Hendrick representatives approached with a suggestion to take it to another less public place — and a place with another full cooler.
The idea died when it made its way to Junior. Upon being informed of the suggestion, Junior politely declined. He wanted to keep the party going, at least for a few more minutes.
It was a scene that epitomized Earnhardt Jr.’s appeal throughout his career. He inherited many of his father’s fans after Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, but he also generated a lot of his own thanks to his authenticity.
Perhaps that has to do with his transformation from shy kid to thoughtful veteran in front of millions of fans over the course of 20 years.
“He’s the reason why we’re friends,” Junior said of 2003 Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth, who entered the Cup Series alongside Junior and is also retiring from the sport at the same time. “He started the conversation. I was too shy to even interact with everybody.”
That shyness was nowhere in sight Sunday night. When the final two beers from that backup cooler had been opened, Junior made his way around the car and, one-by-one, exchanged hugs and handshakes with every single crew member before making his way to congratulate friend Martin Truex Jr. on the 2017 championship.
“Standing around the car and the heat coming off of the car and drinking them cold beers. They were so cold. Had ’em in those Yetis, man, they’re freaking awesome. That’s what I wanted,” Junior said. “I said I don’t care about anything else. Whatever I do after the race I don’t care about nothing else. I just want to have a beer with my team. They are the ones I’m going to miss the most about this whole thing. We’re so close to each other and they matter so much to me.”
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