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How should Kentucky Speedway say goodbye to Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., white fire suit, visited with Jeff Gordon, second from left, in the Kentucky Speedway garage area before the first Quaker State 400 in 2011.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., white fire suit, visited with Jeff Gordon, second from left, in the Kentucky Speedway garage area before the first Quaker State 400 in 2011. Herald-Leader file photo

Dale Earnhardt Jr. loathed the famously bumpy original Kentucky Speedway track surface with a searing passion.

After finishing fifth in Sparta in 2014, Earnhardt had an exchange on Twitter with fellow driver David Ragan about how rough the track had been.

Wrote Junior: “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. Did you close your eyes on the front stretch over fear they might pop out?”

After driving in an open test at Kentucky Speedway in 2015, the year before Kentucky Speedway repaved its racing surface, Earnhardt Jr. went back to Twitter.

He posted pictures of a bumpy road and a headache relief medicine.

“Dale Jr. loved our old track so much,” Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger joked Wednesday.

So when Earnhardt Jr., 42, announced Tuesday that he will retire as a full-time driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after 2017, it seemed immediately clear what Kentucky Speedway should present him as a parting gift before the July 8 running of the Quaker State 400: a bumpy piece of the old track.

“Maybe we can find a section with a really big bump on it,” Simendinger said with a laugh.

In the real world, Simendinger said he is already thinking of what would be an appropriate way for Kentucky Speedway to salute NASCAR’s 14-time, fan-voted most popular driver before what will presumably be Junior’s final race in Sparta.

While a substantial blow to NASCAR at a time when stock-car racing has lost considerable luster in the marketplace, Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement should provide a short-term boost at the turnstiles for the rest of 2017.

“I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been any kind of Dale Jr. fan won’t want to come out and see him run for the last time in their state,” said Simendinger. “And, everybody knows, the ‘Junior Nation’ is a huge fan base.”

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The “Junior Nation” of supporters of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of the most avid fan bases in American sports. Herald-Leader file photo

Earnhardt Jr.’s departure from Cup Series racing accelerates a recent changing of the guard that has removed major stars from the highest level of NASCAR.

Over the past two seasons, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have retired, while Carl Edwards “stepped away” from driving.

Now, Earnhardt Jr. is exiting, too.

In describing what NASCAR is losing, Simendinger noted that three years ago there were three Cup Series drivers whose celebrity transcended motorsports and crossed over into the broader culture.

One of those, Gordon, has already retired. Another, Earnhardt Jr., will soon join him.

The third, Danica Patrick, also has an uncertain future in racing. Patrick saw her primary sponsor bail just before the start of this season. Through eight races, she is 30th in the points standings.

Via her social media accounts, Patrick, 35, seems to be transitioning her “brand” toward healthy eating and fitness.

NASCAR obviously needs new stars who create buzz in non-traditional demographics.

“We’ll have guys coming up who are crazy-talented at driving race cars,” Simendinger said. “Kyle Larson is super talented. Ryan Blaney is super talented. Chase Elliott is on that same level. But can they become stars? Can they become the level of celebrities of the people we’re losing?”

With regard to Dale Jr., Kentucky Speedway has handled superstar goodbyes with aplomb in recent years.

Two years ago for four-time Cup Series champion Gordon, the Speedway got Kentucky distillers Four Roses, Jim Beam, Michter’s and Wild Turkey to each present the driver of the No. 24 car with 24 bottles of bourbon with one-of-a-kind autographed labels.

Jeff Gordon farewell at Kentucky Speedway
Before Jeff Gordon’s final race at Kentucky Speedway in 2015, bourbon distillers Four Roses, Jim Beam, Michter's and Wild Turkey all presented the driver of the No. 24 car with 24 bottles each featuring a one-of-a-kind label. Mark Story mstory@herald-leader.com

“I think I fired my best shot right out of the gate,” Simendinger said.

Last year, for three-time Cup champ Stewart, Kentucky Speedway made use of the driver’s nickname and created the “Thanks Smoke restart zone.”

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For Tony Stewart’s final race at Kentucky Speedway in 2016, the track renamed its restart zone in honor of the driver whose nickname is “Smoke.” Photo submitted by Kentucky Speedway

Now, Speedway officials have to fight through “farewell fatigue” and come up with something special for two-time Daytona 500 champ Earnhardt Jr.

My suggestion was Kentucky Speedway give Earnhardt Jr. a VIP trip to the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

Can you do better? Submit your ideas for honoring Junior in Sparta to me via the contact information below and, if they are good, I’ll try to get them before decision-makers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Kentucky Speedway

Cup Series

Year Start Finish Laps led

2011 29th 30th 0

2012 7th 4th 0

2013 1st 12th 10

2014 29th 5th 0

2015 10th 21st 0

2016 13th 13th 0

Xfinity Series

2015 16th 8th 0

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