DARLINGTON, S.C. — There are only a dozen races remaining in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career at the top level of his sport, and the countdown to the end of those days is quite real for his huge fan base and particularly for family members.
Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Earnhardt's older sister and president of his Xfinity Series team JR Motorsports, was at Darlington Raceway Friday to represent the Earnhardt family as the track renamed its suites outside turn three the Earnhardt Towers in honor of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Earnhardt Jr.
Looking ahead, Miller said the Nov. 19 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, scheduled to be Earnhardt Jr.'s final Cup race, will carry boatloads of emotion.
“I’m going to cry a lot,” she said. “I might as well pack mostly tissues in my suitcase. I know I’m going to cry. At most events where there’s something historical or something coming to an end, that’s what I do. It’s probably going to be surreal in the moment.”
Although Earnhardt family members have said they’re happy Junior is leaving the sport on his own terms after battling the effects of a series of concussions, Homestead week is likely to be dominated by another emotion, Miller said.
“It’s going to be sad,” she said. “To think there’s not an Earnhardt on the racetrack from my dad or Dale Junior is going to be really strange. I grew up watching that.
“I think Dale is going to be sad. He’s not gotten too emotional over things so far, but I think it’s going to hit him.”
Although Earnhardt Jr. is having a poor season and will miss the playoffs unless he wins at Darlington Sunday or Richmond next weekend, Miller said he’s dealing with on-track issues much better than in earlier seasons.
“What you see now when he’s experiencing a year like some of those earlier years is that he’s better and just gotten better with it,” she said. “He doesn’t worry about living up to some certain expectations or being his dad. He’s gotten comfortable in his own skin about who he is and who Dale Earnhardt Jr. is, which is what he’s always wanted to be. That’s why he did things like do his hair blond and all those things from his younger days.”
Miller said she’s tried to boost her brother this season by sending along good vibes — but not too much.
“I usually just text him and try to tell him to keep his head up,” she said. “He doesn’t like anything mushy, so I try not to get too mushy. I try to keep it on the surface and not get too deep but let him know that we’re thinking about him.
“We’ve sat in a lot of meetings this year where I have to remind Dale that he’s a very special athlete. He’s so humble and so down to earth. This is the last year of your career on the track and you are a really special human being. You’re ranked up there with a lot of top athletes. Sometimes I have to remind him of that.”
Brant James, USA Today