Seventeen years ago, long before he had a beard and a baby girl on the way, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just a young NASCAR driver looking for his first Cup Series win.
Of course, he wasn’t just any new driver. As the son of Dale Earnhardt, arguably the best driver in the sport’s history, and a former Xfinity champion, the younger Earnhardt entered the Cup Series facing considerable expectations.
And it didn’t take him long to meet those. Just 12 races into his career in NASCAR’s top circuit, Earnhardt Jr. made his way to Victory Lane for the first time, winning the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. His father met him in Victory Lane, and that moment has endured for Earnhardt’s entire career.
Now fast-forward 17 years to Sunday, when Earnhardt will drive his final race at Texas Motor Speedway. His father won’t be there this time, but that memory from all those years ago is still just as vivid as it was that April night.
And all of that brings up one question: Can Earnhardt steal one more race before he retires, back at the place when he took the checkered flag for the first time?
Let’s not get too crazy and say yes, absolutely Earnhardt can win. Chances are he can’t. There’s a reason he hasn’t won this year, or last year (albeit in a shortened season), and the odds are certainly stacked against him.
But saying he has no chance would also be unfair. Earnhardt has three Top 10 finishes in seven postseason races, compared to three for the rest of the regular season. So, yeah, he’s been much better in the playoffs. He even had a chance to win at Talladega a few weeks ago (he ultimately came in seventh), but that race was such a mess that he was lucky just to finish.
Since Texas is another 1.5-mile track, and Martin Truex Jr. has won the past four on such tracks, he’s far and away the favorite there, too. There’s also Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson who all will be fighting for a win (and an automatic berth in the championship race in Homestead).
So no, it isn’t likely that Earnhardt wins on Sunday. But there are glimmers of hope – his best finish this year was fifth at, you guessed it, Texas, and he’s only finished outside the Top 10 there once in the last seven races.
Again, this is probably a long shot. But it’s almost too perfect an ending – to bookend his career at the same track – not to want to see Earnhardt running out front in the last few laps.