Let the historical record show, Dale Earnhardt Jr. once actually enjoyed driving on the Kentucky Speedway racing surface.
“We used to come here all the time testing, and it was a very fun track to test,” Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. “With the cars the way they were back in ’02, ’03, ’04, whenever we were testing here, we just really got around this place and it drove completely different. … (But) it doesn’t remind me today of anything like it was back then.”
On the eve of the seventh running of the Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts, Kentucky Speedway delivered its goodbye gift to the most popular driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Track general manager Mark Simendinger presented Earnhardt Jr. — who announced in April that 2017 would be his final season as a full-time driver — with a customized Crosley jukebox similar to the one the winner of Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 will receive.
It came with a twist.
Rather than go home with Earnhardt Jr., the jukebox will be donated to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, with which Earnhardt Jr. has had a long-running involvement.
“Things like this mean a lot to me — where I know this is going to go to the hospital and the kids are going to love it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I would rather (other) tracks sort of follow that road to making a difference in someone else’s life long-term.”
That Kentucky Speedway’s retirement gift passed muster with Junior was nice — because the track has not seemed to provide him with much enjoyment otherwise in recent years.
No driver was more outspoken about the drawbacks of the famously bumpy original racing surface at the Sparta track than Junior, of course.
Even last year, after the Kentucky Speedway track was first repaved, Earnhardt Jr. still managed to find a big bump. He did it by going below the racing line in the front straightaway into a drainage area while trying to pass Denny Hamlin.
Said Earnhardt Jr.: “I hit that (bump), and I landed in front of (Hamlin). Scared the (crap) out of both of us. It was terrible.”
Last year, Kentucky Speedway was the final track on which Earnhardt Jr. competed before concussion-like symptoms sidelined him for the season’s final 18 races.
“I was not feeling too good physically,” Earnhardt Jr. said of last summer’s visit to Sparta. “… This is where it all kind of started to come to the surface, where the symptoms and all that stuff started to become a concern.”
In the big picture, the thought that Earnhardt Jr., 42, is headed toward retirement is an ultimate “where does the time go?” moment.
It seems only yesterday he was NASCAR’s up-and-comer, winning back-to-back championships in 1998 and ’99 in what is now called the Xfinity Series while driving for the team that bore the name of his very famous father.
In the years since, we lived through with Dale Jr. the horrible day at Daytona International Speedway in 2001 when he lost his father. We also shared his joyous moments, such as when Junior asserted his own standing in NASCAR by claiming his two Daytona 500 wins (2004 and 2014).
So unlike his father and namesake, Junior will not leave the Cup Series as a seven-time champion. Unless there is a late-season miracle in 2017, Earnhardt Jr. will not leave as a Cup champ at all.
Nevertheless, a career with 26 Cup wins is nothing Earnhardt Jr. has to apologize over.
As for this year, with Earnhardt Jr. 22nd in the season points without a win, his only likely path into the NASCAR “postseason” is through winning one of the nine races left before the playoff begins.
Saturday night, Earnhardt Jr. will seek that victory at Kentucky, where he has two top-five finishes (fourth in 2012; fifth in 2014) to show for his six prior Cup races.
Even after a second repave in Sparta this past offseason, he still does not seem to relish the track.
“This place is such a challenge now to get around,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Entering Turn 3 is so flat. (Turns) 1 and 2 with the new configuration allows for more speed. … You come down the back straightaway carrying a lot of speed into a very, very flat entry (to Turn 3) and the cars are just so wicked loose getting in there.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says saying farewell to Kentucky Speedway with a win would carry no extra meaning because it would be over a track he finds so challenging.
“We need a win to get in the playoffs,” he said. “I think if we won (Saturday), that would be the first thing that would come to mind is how that has helped us get an opportunity to be in the postseason in the final year. And that would be great.”
NASCAR Quaker State 400
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kentucky Speedway in Sparta
TV: NBC Sports Network
Defending champion: Brad Keselowski