Martin Truex Jr. captured the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, but the party followed Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Earnhardt finished 25th in his final start as a full-time driver, but the details were trivial — beer was already spilling before he even parked the car on pit road.
„My thoughts are the beer cooler just got put on the trunk of the car,“ Earnhardt said after climbing from his car. „I’m going to have a beer with my team right here, right now and we had a lot of fun tonight. We got the car rolling pretty good and then I hit the wall and had a flat (tire) there at the end. But we had a lot of fun out there. This is a fun old racetrack.“
Surrounded by friends and family, Earnhardt was celebrated for both his exploits as a driver and as a beloved statesman for the sport he was born into and helped shape into the 21st century.
Earnhardt will get to keep the car he drove on Sunday, too, trading his helmet to team owner Rick Hendrick in exchange for the retro-livery skinned No. 88 that harked back to his tenure with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the early 2000s.
The deal was that Earnhardt could keep the car if he kept it in one piece by the end of the race.
The only real damage to the car was on its nose, the result of Earnhardt playfully congratulating Truex during the cool-down lap. The duo has been friends for nearly two decades, with Truex even driving for Earnhardt in the Xfinity Series from 2001 to 2005.
He won two championships for Chance 2 Motorsports in 2004 and 2005.
„I’m proud of him,“ Earnhardt said of Truex. „What a story for Martin. I love it. We retired and Martin wins the championship. That’s storybook.“
Earnhardt took a break from the party to run over to the stage on the front stretch to hug Truex.
„I hope all the fans enjoyed this season,“ said Earnhardt. „I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the racetrack, but we just had fun off of it, and I’m going to miss everybody, but we’ll be back.“
Earnhardt closes his Cup Series career with 26 victories and 260 top-10s in 631 starts. He has seven overall top-10 championship finishes.
Earnhardt had been fairly composed all weekend, but he finally had to fight back tears during prerace when Hendrick came over to hug his driver and friend.
„Hugging on Rick made me emotional because he’s like a daddy,“ Earnhardt said of Hendrick. „Trying to tell him how much he means to me is really hard. Words just don’t do it justice. It’s hard to explain to somebody that you love so much.
„Me and him bawled like babies before I got in the car.“
Then Earnhardt rolled off toward pit road, from where he and Matt Kenseth were staged near turn four. He was met by crew members from every team offering a high-five in a scene reminiscent of his father winning the 1998 Daytona 500.
„I really wanted to shake their hand because the road guys are the guys who have it the most difficult for their travel, the commitment to be on a pit crew, that’s the biggest commitment that I think anybody makes in this industry,“ Earnhardt said. „I was wanting to shake their hands. I’ve admired all them guys in that garage for so long.
„I was hoping everybody would be on pit road so I could shake their hand.“
Earnhardt shared another hug with Hendrick, and then his wife, and then his mom after climbing out of the car.
After that, they drank a ton of beer.