Last Ride Complete, Earnhardt Jr. Hands Helmet to Hendrick

Ron Lemasters | JR Motorsports | 11/20/2017

Appreci88ion Dale Jr. Homestead News

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s time at the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports has come to an end.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Nov. 20, 2017) – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s time at the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports has come to an end.

It ended 6,748 days from when it started, back on May 30, 1999 in Concord, N.C. In between then and now, there have been incredible highs, devastating lows and a lot of moments for both him and his family to cherish.

After finishing 25th in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday night, Earnhardt Jr. climbed out, unbuckled his helmet and just stood there for a minute, soaking it all in. After 631 starts, 26 victories and the unending adulation of fans the world over, it was time to start something new.

When team owner Rick Hendrick met him at the car, Earnhardt Jr. handed him his helmet...a tacit acknowledgement that the torch—or helmet—had been passed and the No. 88 was now Alex Bowman’s to race. That simple act, the transfer of power, so to speak, and the long hug between car owner and driver, was enough to trigger some waterworks from Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick, out in front of God and everyone.

“I didn’t cry until I was hugging Rick’s neck,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Man, he’s been like a father to me with the things he’s done for me personally, and in personal stuff. He’s really helped me more than anybody will ever know. And he’s done that for a lot of people and so I will miss trying to make him proud. I know I will still be able to do things that will make him proud because he’s like a daddy.

“I’ll miss driving his cars and trying to make him proud on the race track.”

Hendrick said that getting the helmet from Earnhardt Jr. was an emotional moment.

“That meant so much,” he said. “When Jeff did it, he done it. I still can’t believe I’ve seen these guys grow up.  I’ve known Jeff since the early days of his career and Dale since he was about 12.  To see them retire and I’m going on… not right.”  

While he won’t have his final race helmet, he’ll have something bigger and better: the car he ran at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“The deal I had with Rick was if I finished the race with the car in one piece, I’d get the car and he’d get the helmet,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “So, yeah, I’m going to take this thing back home. It’s got a little scuff here and there. We ran into (Martin) Truex on the back straightaway high-fiving him with our race car (laughs). I’m proud of him. What a story for Martin. I love it. We retired and Martin wins the championship. That’s storybook. I hope all the fans enjoyed this season. I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track, but we just had fun off of it and I’m going to miss everybody, but we’ll be back.”

Before he left the lights and the crowd and the noise behind as a full-time driver, he wanted to share a moment with his team. That team, led by Greg Ives, has had Earnhardt Jr.’s back every minute of every day, and he wanted to make sure they knew it.

“The beer cooler just got put on the trunk of the car,” he said soon after emerging from behind the wheel. “I’m going to have a beer with my team right here, right now and we had a lot of fun tonight. I knew that I’d finish this race so we were going to meet on pit road with the cooler and have some beers with my team. These guys are like my brothers and we really fight for each other and lean on each other and these are the friendships that I’ll have long beyond my racing days. So, this is a good moment with them.”

As for the thousands of fans who came to see him sign off his NASCAR career, Earnhardt Jr. hoped they enjoyed the show.

“We hope they enjoyed it,” he said. “They got to see a great race there at the end. I was sitting there running behind it and watching it and it was pretty exciting. We’ll be at the race track a little bit next year with our Xfinity stuff and run a couple of races and be able to say hey to everybody when we come back and do that. And obviously we’re going to be in the booth. So, we’ll be around.

“I still want to have a purpose in this sport. After driving you’ve got to find something to be passionate about what matters to you and I think I might have found that with broadcasting and obviously still owning JR Motorsports. We’re going to be competitive and the competitor inside will still be on fire and trying to keep that team going. I just texted Elliott Sadler all morning about, ‘man we’re going to come back next year. You just get your head right and after the off-season we’re coming right back here to try to win that thing again because we want to be a part of this sport as long as we can, we really do.’

“It’s time for somebody else to get in this car. It’s a great opportunity for Alex (Bowman) and I’m excited to see what he can do. But we definitely want to be a part of the sport no matter what.”

Hendrick all but confirmed that Earnhardt Jr. would be a force in the sport for years to come.

“I know how it feels to me how emotional it was for me before and after the race,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for Dale to dream of doing this since he was a little kid and to see this chapter close.  I think the excitement of… he has always loved helping the young guys.  He will be doing that and involved in racing, he just won’t be in the seat. 

“I’m happy for him because I know he is happy and sad, but I think with the baby on the way and all he’s got to do at JRM and we talked about it tonight we are going to do more fishing. We actually, since he told me and we got over the emotion of knowing it was going to be this year, we are looking forward to life after this racing, not the Xfinity and being in the sport, but I mean I can’t imagine for who he is and what he has meant to the sport the pressure he has always felt for that how this must be an unbelievable emotional thing for him, but like Jeff (Gordon) he is going to be on TV.  We are still going to see him and he will have the Xfinity team.  He is going to enjoy that. I have a feeling he is really going to enjoy that and he will add a lot.”

As one chapter of his life closes, the next one awaits. That starts soon, because the next season will be here before anyone can blink.