Dale Earnhardt Jr. embraced his pregnant wife behind his race car as fireworks crackled in the sky and fighter jets roared over the track.
Earnhardt kissed Amy three times on the lips, then pulled on his helmet and slid into the No. 88 Chevrolet to kick off his farewell race as a NASCAR Cup driver.
All the video tributes, gifts and heartfelt gratitude Earnhardt received in the months since he announced his retirement seemed to fade as he pulled onto pit road. Earnhardt stuck his left arm outside the window and slapped hands with all pit crews from the entire series as he prepared to take off for a ceremonial pace lap .
Earnhardt thanked everyone who had an impact on his career.
“The fans that are here and home watching made this all possible,” he said over the radio.
NASCAR’s most popular driver was ready to go.
Driving the car must have been a relief to the 43-year-old Earnhardt. He spent Sunday morning doing his final rounds of interviews and earned a standing ovation from his peers at the drivers’ meeting.
Earnhardt was the last one brought out before the four championship contenders. It was moments after a video aired about Earnhardt’s impact on NASCAR, which was narrated by “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley.
As the video closed, Hartley said of Earnhardt: “Talent is a gift. Character is a choice.”
Earnhardt was then brought on stage, where he tried to high-five as many fans as possible as he crossed to a separate stage. There, he signed dozens of autographs, then had a lengthy embrace with NASCAR security director Mike Lentz.
Earnhardt hopped into the back of a pickup truck, flipped his baseball cap backward and waved to the crowd during his final trip pre-race parade around the track.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, stopped by the car for a chat. Team owner Rick Hendrick threw his arms around his driver for a poignant bear hug. Amy dabbed her eyes with tears after each photo shoot, and Junior gently patted her tiny baby bump.
Earnhardt laughed when a couple of fans shouted they wanted to buy him a round at Shots and Giggles, a pub near his Key West vacation home.
He had been roused from bed around 6 a.m. Sunday, made himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and went back to sleep. When he woke up for good, the finality of his decision hit NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“This is gonna be a weird day,” Earnhardt tweeted.
Earnhardt tweeted on the start of his day to his more than 2.3 million Twitter followers and probably had time to scroll through the thousands of replies from fans and fellow drivers wishing him good luck.
Popular inside the garage, Danica Patrick was among the scores of Earnhardt fans who sent him messages. The fans at Homestead-Miami Speedway who usually stick Sharpies in Earnhardt’s face demanding autographs instead crammed the 88 pit box and wrote messages for him on the concrete wall. Kerry Earnhardt, his half-brother, tweeted a family photo in front of a private plane and wrote, “the damn fam is heading your way brother!”
The NASCAR finale felt more like a celebration of Earnhardt’s career than the anticipated coronation of a new champion. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Earnhardt’s hunting buddy, Martin Truex Jr., are racing for the title.
Earnhardt received a rousing, standing ovation at the pre-race meeting from NASCAR drivers and executives, fans, and athletes that included Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and MMA star Rampage Jackson.
NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said when the sports history is recounted it certainly will “touch on the Dale Junior era in NASCAR.”
NASCAR showed a tribute video that included actor Adam Sandler, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, Hartley, retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, actor/director Mark Wahlberg, country music singer Brad Paisley, several active drivers and some of his current and former team members as well as team owner Rick Hendrick.
After it ended, the entire room stood and clapped for Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, who tipped his red baseball cap in thanks, started from the rear of field because he changed engines in his Chevrolet.
“We’re going to miss him for obvious reasons,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Sunday. “He’s not going to be that far away. He’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s going to be good for us.”
Earnhardt won’t desert NASCAR: He has two or three Xfinity races planned for next season and tossed out the Homestead finale in 2018 as a potential race. He owns second-tier Xfinity race teams and will call the action next season in the NBC Sports broadcast booth.
Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s and 26 races overall. But he never won a Cup championship, or came close in achievements to matching his late Hall of Fame father who won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”
Earnhardt got one of the best retirement gifts he could have asked for when William Byron won the Xfinity Series championship for JR Motorsports on Saturday. He is part owner of the race team with sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and his Hendrick Motorsports boss, Rick Hendrick.
“You never think about what the end looks like,” Earnhardt Miller said. “It’s been so fun to relive memories and watch all these videos and watch all these tributes. I don’t want to cry. Dale says I’m a crier. I am the crier of the family.”
Earnhardt is winless this year and, at 21st in the standings, is on pace for his worst full-season finish since 2009.
He has a modest goal for the finale.
“I just want to run all the laps. I want to finish the race in one piece,” he said. “I don’t have anything outside the car that’s on a to-do list. As far as I’m concerned, I’m good with coming in here and doing the things we always do every race weekend.”