During the pre-race show for Friday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. undersold how well he would perform.
The 48-year-old racer downplayed that perhaps he wasn’t cut out to race on the NASCAR Xfinity Series stage anymore, after struggling to impress in practice and qualifying for the event, but he hoped he could gain some confidence by the 50-lap mark of the race.
The man was straight-up sandbagging.
Earnhardt scored Stage points in both Stages of the race, and on Lap 174, the driver of the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro gained the lead of the race. He would hold the top spot for 47 consecutive circuits around the 0.533-mile short track in Tennessee.
While he would lose the lead, due to pit strategy, Earnhardt would show speed capable of challenging for the race win near the end of the race. He was mixing it up at the front of the field with Daniel Hemric, John Hunter Nemechek, and Cole Custer inside the top five.
That’s when the unthinkable happened.
Earnhardt radioed that he had a fire in the cockpit of his JR Motorsports machine, and things were starting to get a little hot for the two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion.
“Yeah, we got a hole in my pants. Somehow or another, the shifter tunnel caught on fire,” Earnhardt said after an infield care center visit. “I saw some smoke in the car, and I smelt it, and I thought, ‘Hopefully that’s not me.’ That last lap, I saw a big fireball down in the tunnel, in the car, and I felt it, obviously. My uniform was burning up. I was like, ‘I can’t keep going. I’ve got to stop.'”
Moments later, Earnhardt pulled his car into the pit lane with 29 laps left in the race. Earnhardt would park in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing pit box in an effort to get the fire put out.
“Usually, when you stop, the fire gets bigger,” Earnhardt explained after the race. “So, I pulled over by that pit stall, and some of those guys were pretty alert, and they helped me out. I hate it. We were going to finish in the top 10, maybe top-five. We had a shot at winning it if the car ran good at the end. But trying not to mess anybody’s night up at the same time. It was hard, but I had fun.”
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The shot at the win was over, and Earnhardt was credited with a less-than-stellar 30th-place finish on the night, but his performance was anything but. The incredible performance actually surprised Earnhardt, and — no pun intended — fuels his fire to want to run even more.
“Oh yeah, yeah. I had a blast,” Earnhardt stated with a massive smile on his face. “Checked that box. Justin wins, BRANDT car wins. Great for Rick [Brandt] and his whole team. Thanks to all of the fans, we had a great crowd tonight, and the Hellmann’s car was fast, man. I never knew — we drove up there and led laps legitimately. I couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘Man, what is going on?’ Makes me want to do it more. But I’m going to Homestead, so I’ll see everyone there. We’ll have some fun at Homestead riding the fence.”
Earnhardt attempts to pick up where he left off in Bristol at Homestead-Miami Speedway on October 21st as he’ll once again pilot the No. 88 Chevrolet Camaro for JR Motorsports in that race.