When he started out in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 17 years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not envision piling up mind-boggling career numbers.
“I just wanted to drive. I wanted to race cars for a living,” Earnhardt said Friday in the media center at Auto Club Speedway, where he will make his 600th career Cup start in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
“I wanted to do it well enough to be able to afford to make a living doing it,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t have vision or assume that I was going to make all of the money and success that we have made, but all I really wanted to do was to do it long enough so I didn’t have to get a real job.
“I mean that as sincere as I can. I’m real thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to stay around and drive for some really great teams, some really awesome owners. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing crew chiefs and crew members.”
That includes his present No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
This season isn’t off to the start Earnhardt or any of his teammates had hoped as he makes his return after missing the final 18 races of last season recovering from a concussion.
He crashed out of the season-opening Daytona 500 – although it was no fault of his own – and finished 37th. He has since followed that with finishes of 30th Atlanta, 16th at Las Vegas and 14th at Phoenix, leaving him 23rd in the points standings heading into this weekend at the 2-mile track in Fontana, Calif., where he has never won in 24 previous career starts.
“We have a really great group of guys that we race with in this current situation,” Earnhardt said. “We’re having so much fun at the race track. I really enjoy working with (crew chief) Greg (Ives), so I feel fortunate and lucky and hope to have good success this weekend.”
Meanwhile, you can’t blame him for being in a bit of his nostalgic mood as he prepares to make that milestone 600th start in a career that has included 26 wins and a total of 8,195 laps led.
“I think back about the wins and maybe not even the wins,” Earnhardt said. “Some races are really fun and satisfactory, but you are the only one that will remember then because you ran third or fifth or something like that and they are kind of obscure in most people’s minds.
“I think about winning the All-Star race as a rookie (in 2000) and just how fortunate we were to do that. Winning the Daytona 500 twice. I didn’t know that I would even win it once. Everything that has happened. The list goes on and on.”
Earnhardt said that there is no doubt about what ranks at the top of it for him, though.
“I would have never thought it would have been as good as it has been or as fun as it has been along the way,” Earnhardt said. “I have made so many good friends. As you get older you start to understand how you prioritize the things that are most important to you about the sport.
“The camaraderie and the friendships that I’ve made kind of started down the list and as I’ve gotten older that has crept up the list and if it’s not number one, I don’t know what is. All the people in the garage, the industry, the press, the friends that you make. That probably is what you will miss the most once you are done driving. It’s the people.
“Driving cars and the adrenaline and all that is great and a lot of fun, but, man, the friends that you make here … that is something we talk about, too.”
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