Dale Earnhardt Jr. relishes another race at Florence

TIMMONSVILLE, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Late Model Stock Car on Saturday night in a good mood. He had finished eighth in the South Carolina 400 at Florence Motor Speedway after qualifying 26th in a 41-car field.

But he was thirsty.

“What’s in the cooler?” Earnhardt asked a team member as FloRacing’s camera crew arrived for a post-race interview. The 49-year-old NASCAR Hall of Famer was not pleased with the answer: “Just water.” He wanted a cold one.

A few minutes later, after his interview, a track official arrived with a handful of beers. Earnhardt cracked one open, took a swig and proceeded to mingle with his team members, smiling and laughing over their beverages.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For Earnhardt, at this point in his life and career, these moments are what it’s all about. Sure, the racing superstar’s presence at the NASCAR Home Track in Florence County incites a palpable stir in the packed grandstands. But the short-track atmosphere is his element.

It’s where he’s found a sense of peace as a race-car driver.

“I know it sounds silly,” Earnhardt said, “but I spent my whole life trying to be as good as I possibly could. Being so competitive you almost make yourself miserable. Every dang time you ran a lap, you wanted to know how it measured up against the field. You do that your whole life, and when you get out of that, you‘re so relieved to get out from under that pressure.

“You put pressure on yourself to live up to this expectation — especially as a Cup driver. And so to finally get out from under that pressure. … I mean, I miss racing, but I don‘t have to worry about trying to measure up to where I should every week.”

Still, Earnhardt said he sometimes finds himself falling into the trap of his own competitive spirit, letting the misery of frustration infiltrate his mindset. He battled those demons Saturday.

Earnhardt admitted he was disappointed to qualify 26th, especially after a series of ho-hum practice sessions as he and his team worked to find a setup suitable for Florence’s 0.4-mile layout and abrasive asphalt.

“I tried not to let it bother me, but it‘s hard not to let it bother you,” he said. “You go out there and run a lap, and you‘re like, ‘Well s—, how are those guys making so much time? I‘ve got basically the same car as [JR Motorsports Late Model driver] Carson [Kvapil], and he ran faster.’

“So I‘m a big chunk of it. What am I doing, and what can I do different?”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sure enough, though, Earnhardt was able to revert to the proper head space in time for Saturday night’s main event, a 250-lap marathon of a Late Model Stock race.

He methodically advanced from that 26th starting position and muscled his way to 10th by the time the race break arrived on Lap 100. With the entire field on fresh tires after that stop, Earnhardt did his best to manage his rubber for about 100 laps before the final charge with 50 or so laps to go.

He was aggressive, particularly on restarts. Fellow Late Model Stock competitor Brenden “Butterbean” Queen even made it a point to approach Earnhardt post-race and compliment the veteran on his dive bomb into Turn 1 to take a position during the closing laps.

Earnhardt admitted he “didn’t love” finishing eighth, especially in a race that saw his teammate land on the podium. Kvapil finished third behind winner Kade Brown and second-place Kaden Honeycutt.

He had that in mind when he climbed out of his car, a process that takes longer now than it did when he was routinely exiting Cup cars at a younger age. He was worn out from a race that lasted nearly four hours.

Still, the first words he fired at his team members upon exiting his Chevrolet: “That was fun. Good job.”

In that regard, Earnhardt’s second South Carolina 400 was a success. The bliss he experienced from another no-pressure race setting was evident in how he carried himself after the checkers.

He joked with team members. He conversed with friends and a handful of special guests. He signed autographs and posed for photos with fans.

This is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s happy place — especially after that beer.