DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Upon further review, hoisting a championship trophy is exactly how Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to end his career.
NASCAR’s most popular driver caused a stir on “The Dan Patrick Show” when he claimed he would immediately retire if he wins the title this year. The statement followed him to media day for the Daytona 500, and there was no question about it.
“Hell, yeah. I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be outta here,” he said. “That’s the last box I don’t have checked, really. There’s a few races I’d like to win. The championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career.”
Earnhardt is the son of Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, who won a record-tying seven championships over his career. As Earnhardt enters the 18th season of his Cup career, he’s still seeking his first title.
He’s said repeatedly that retirement is not on his radar, and at just 42 years old, he should have many years ahead in his career. But Earnhardt has had concussion issues and missed the second half of last season recovering from one. He is also newly married and says he is looking at life differently.
Knowing how hard he worked to get healthy and back in the race car, he really just wants to dictate his final racing years himself and not have a doctor be the one to end his career.
“To come back this year, win a championship, it would be hard not to hang it up,” he said. “This is the last year of my (contract). I would like to race more. But if I win the championship, I’d have to consider going out on top.”
Earnhardt qualified second for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 - on the front row next to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott - and is the star of Speedweeks. All the drivers had a chance to address a variety of topics Wednesday. The highlights:
The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 18 races last season raised awareness on concussions in racing, and NASCAR this year has beefed up its concussion policy in an effort to better detect head injuries. Danica Patrick, who raced for years in IndyCar before moving to NASCAR, estimated she’s suffered a dozen concussions in her career.
“Every time you crash you have a concussion on a varying degree, I’m sure,” she said. “It is a little bit thought-provoking … because while we’re not football players, we don’t get the repeated hits like in succession over a short amount of time, but it’s rough in the car and the hits are probably singularly bigger.
“There’s nothing better than having somebody like Dale Jr. going so far as to get out of the car for as long as he did and saying, ‘Hey, I have a problem,’ because it makes it more available for everyone else. I think we like to sweep it all under the rug as drivers like we feel fine and nothing is wrong, but it’s our life.”
TURN 4 TROUBLES
Hendrick Motorsports has been admittedly aggressive in preparing for the Daytona 500, and it may be the cause of the problems the team has had in Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson twice spun in that turn Sunday during an exhibition race, and pole-sitter Chase Elliott got loose in the same spot in practice. In last year’s Daytona 500, both Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun in Turn 4.
“We can’t sit still. We need faster cars. Everybody is working on it,” Johnson said. “We were very aggressive in the (Clash) trying to create speed for the car, and I’m a guy that likes a loose race car so I was willing to roll dice.”
Johnson also noted that Alex Bowman and Kasey Kahne had no problems with Turn 4 in Sunday’s race.
“We have great notes to fall back on. We had a very good driving car in last year’s 500, and then two teammates that didn’t spin out in the Clash, so we have plenty of notes to go to, but we’re definitely being aggressive.”
A solid game plan got Toyota its first Daytona 500 victory last season, and the manufacturer wants to use that same teamwork this year during Speedweeks. It was on display during the Clash on Sunday when the Toyota entries ran 1-2-3-4 for most of the race.
It remains to be seen if the same strategy will work in the Daytona 500. The Toyota fleet now includes a pair of rookies in Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, and neither has much experience in a Cup car.
“Game plans don’t necessarily all work out,” said Toyota driver Matt Kenseth. “You’ve got to have strong cars to do it. The car has to end up there, not be separated by bad pit stops or strategy. I thought we had it lined up really good in the Clash. We had all four of us in a row for a while.
“We just weren’t quite fast enough.”
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano teamed to win six of the last nine restrictor-plate races, and Logano won the exhibition Clash on Sunday.
It means Team Penske is a heavy favorite for Sunday, and eager for the 500 to arrive.
“I wish it was Sunday right now, I’m ready to go racing,” Keselowski said.
Austin Dillon praised the way Keselowski raced Sunday, and called a move Keselowski made where he went to the bottom, then the middle, then back to the bottom, “pretty wicked. That was a sweet move.”
Dillon called Logano, Keselowski and defending race winner Denny Hamlin the drivers to beat.
“As a race car driver you always look to be better at certain things,” Logano said. “When I first started speedway racing, I wasn’t very good at all and I’ve worked really hard at it to become better. I’m confident enough to say I’m the best race car driver out there, but I guess at the same time after the race I’m able to look back at the race and say, ‘Why did I do that? I screwed this up. I did that wrong.’ I’m able to still find a lot of things that I can be a lot better at.”
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