Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR Return Is Inspiring but Arguably Not the Best Choice

Any day that Dale Earnhardt Jr. chooses to race is a good one for NASCAR fans. His decision to do so on a milestone anniversary of a day that the nation can never forget makes his annual return to motorsports even more compelling.

As inspiring as his plans for Sept. 11 may be, however, picking that day’s Xfinity Series race to stay connected to the sport poses some potential problems that would have been avoided by choosing another date and track.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will race at Richmond Raceway on Sept. 11

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Earnhardt, always a favorite of NASCAR fans, has revealed that his annual foray into racing will come Sept. 11 in the Xfinity Series fall race at Richmond Raceway. The Go Bowling 250 is the afternoon piece of a doubleheader with the NASCAR Cup Series night race.

With the race falling on the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., Earnhardt is preparing a “United for America” paint scheme for the JR Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet. A release from his team said the paint scheme will feature four spotlights representing the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the Flight 93 Memorial site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, with the words “Never Forget” on the lower-rear quarter.

“It‘s hard to believe it‘s been 20 years since that terrible day,” Earnhardt said. “The spirit of unity and togetherness our country felt on Sept. 11 is just as relevant now as it was then.”

Earnhardt has been picking one race a year since retiring

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Earnhardt, 46. has selected one race to run each year since retiring from full-time racing after the 2017 season. He’s been highly successful in representing the team he co-owns with sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Rick Hendrick. He placed fifth at Richmond in 2018, fourth at Darlington in 2019, and fifth at Homestead-Miami last year.

The results are hardly a surprise. In the two seasons before he began racing full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, Earnhardt won the 1998 and ’99 Xfinity season championships. For his career, he has won 24 of 142 starts there to complement his 26 triumphs in the big series.

There are potential pitfalls for the driver, team, and NASCAR

Getting back in the No. 8 Chevy with a patriotic paint scheme is an understandable move for Earnhardt and the team, but it does create some complications, beginning with the JR Motorsports outfit.

JR Motorsports has a full stable of drivers for its Xfinity program. Michael Annett has scored three top-10 showings in the No. 1 Chevy, Justin Allgaier has a victory and two other top-10s in the No. 7, and Noah Gragson has placed in the first six four times in the No. 9.

As for the No. 8 that Earnhardt will drive, Josh Berry has had first call and recently won at Martinsville. Miguel Paludo placed seventh on the Daytona road course and will get two more rides this spring. At that point, though, JR Motorsports intends to turn the ride over to Sam Mayer after he turns 18 in late June.

Mayer won once in the truck series and five times on the ARCA circuit in 2020. If he should produce in his first nine starts, pulling him out of the Xfinity car for Richmond will be a disappointment.

There are other considerations as well.

Richmond is the next-to-last regular-season race. There will be controversy if Earnhardt (or any other veteran driver) is involved in knocking a playoff hopeful out of contention — a bad look for NASCAR.

From a publicity standpoint, anything Earnhardt does at Richmond will be lost quickly in the news cycle. That Saturday will presumably feature a full day of college football with crowds back in stadiums, plus the NASCAR Cup Series is racing at night. The following afternoon is the first Sunday of the NFL season.

Earnhardt is still a big racing attraction. His winning on Sept. 11 would be huge news. Anything less, however, risks losing him in the clutter.

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