Mark Story

Five good questions: Kentucky Speedway’s Mark Simendinger on saying farewell to Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after 2017 NASCAR season

Racing legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he will retire from racing after the 2017 NASCAR season.
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Racing legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he will retire from racing after the 2017 NASCAR season.

In 2015, Kentucky Speedway said farewell to four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon.

Last year, the Sparta track bid so long to three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart.

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Kentucky Speedway on July 8 for the seventh running of the Quaker State 400, it will be the final run for two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 14-time winner of the fan-voted Most Popular Driver Award.

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger says ticket sales for the 2017 Quaker State 400 have been tracking up over last year since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced in April plans to retire at the end of this season. Herald-Leader file photo

Earnhardt Jr. did not care for the famously bumpy, original Kentucky Speedway racing surface, which was repaved after the 2015 racing season. In his six career Cup starts in Sparta, Earnhardt Jr. has finishes of 30th (2011), fourth (2012), 12th (2013), fifth (2014), 21st (2015) and 13th (last year).

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger recently discussed Dale Jr.’s last drive in Sparta:

Question one: Are ticket sales up since Earnhardt Jr. announced in April his pending retirement from full-time driving in the Cup Series?

Simendinger: “We’ve been up (in ticket sales) the last, probably, two months. Not a huge amount, but we’ve been up year-over-year.”

Question two: And how much do you attribute that to Dale Jr.?

The “Junior Nation,” fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr., is one of the largest and most passionate fan bases in American sports. Herald-Leader file photo

Simendinger: “I think a lot of that does have to do with Earnhardt. He does get a lot of people excited. They do want to come (see him). It does make a difference. And they do want to see him do well.”

Question three: Has Earnhardt Jr.’s “camp” sent you instructions on how to acknowledge his final race at Kentucky?

Simendinger: “They have, they have, and I think that was a really good thing. Look, the guy is so popular — you measure it by Twitter followers, Q rating, whatever — so they have to set some kind of ground rules as far as ‘This is what you need to expect that we are going to do and that is OK with us.’ There’s a real risk on their end that somebody is going to take his image and likeness and try to make some money off it. And that’s not what his deal is about.

“So I welcomed (Earnhardt Jr.’s guidance). I thought it was smart for them to do it. That way, there is no misunderstanding. Everybody knows, ‘This is what we are going to do and not going to do.’”

Jeff Gordon farewell at Kentucky Speedway
Bourbon was the theme when Kentucky Speedway said farewell to Jeff Gordon, center, in 2015. Mark Story

Question four: So what is Dale Jr. willing to do?

Simendinger: “From what I read, it was all reasonable and, generous, really, on Junior’s part. He wants to promote the sport. He’s going to do a half-hour with media. A half an hour is a long time. That’s pretty good. He doesn’t have to do that. So I thought that was pretty generous.

“He’s willing to help with, we obviously are using his image ‘Dale Jr.’s last race (at Kentucky Speedway)’ and he’s good with all that. He’s just saying, ‘Don’t book me for, I can’t do five appearances for you guys.’ Which is all reasonable and all good.”

Kentucky Speedway said farewell to Tony Stewart last year by renaming the track restart zone with Stewart’s nickname, “Smoke.” Kentucky Speedway

Question five: Two years ago, Kentucky Speedway gave Jeff Gordon specially labeled bottles of Kentucky bourbon as a farewell gift. Last year, the Speedway renamed its restart zone in honor of Tony Stewart. So what’s the plan for Dale Jr.?

Simendinger: “We did not get him a horse. I’ll break that right here, right now.

“But I’ve got (a plan). … It came to me one day when I was running, when most of my good thoughts occur.”

NASCAR week at Kentucky Speedway

July 6: Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225

July 7: Xfinity Series Alsco 300

July 8: Monster Energy Cup Series Quaker State 400