Hours before his seventh-place start and a fourth-place finish in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway June 9, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked fresh and rested as he visited National Guard members at an infield area.
Earnhardt, dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, took 15 minutes out of his busy race day for an exclusive interview with The On Guard, the National Guard’s official newspaper, and to sign a few autographs and hang out with 18 new enlistees in the Pennsylvania Army Guard.
Then he climbed into the blue and white No. 88 National Guard Chevy Impala to endure the heat of competition under the watchful eyes of thousands of his military and civilian fans.
“I hope they are well. I hope they are making the best of the situation,” Earnhardt said about Guard members serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and at home. “We appreciate everything they do for us. We’re working, we’re racing, we’re having our freedoms and enjoying our lives in part for what they accomplish.”
Guard members returned similar sentiments to Earnhardt after he finished the grueling 500-mile, four-hour race in the car where temperatures were comparable to a pizza oven, with track temperatures in the mid-90s.
Literally, it was the hottest race of the season for Earnhardt and the No. 88 Guard car team, who held their third position in the Sprint standings and claimed their sixth top-five finish and 10th top-10 finish this season.
Considering the unknowns Earnhardt faced going into this season with a new team and new sponsors, including the National Guard, he said he feels “pretty good” with what’s been accomplished so far.
He is the hottest driver for Hendrick Motorsports even though he is the new member of that team, which includes Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last two season championships. Johnson is in sixth place.
“We still got other things we want to accomplish,” Earnhardt said before the race. “(There’s) quite a bit more left in the season, but we’re in a good position. I feel like this is definitely one of the best opportunities I’ve had to chase after the championship, to win a championship, so we’re trying to put ourselves in the best position to do that when it comes time for that last 10 (races).”
Earnhardt has steadily introduced himself to the Guard this year. Asked to compare military service to auto racing, he said it takes a certain level of commitment to succeed in auto racing as well as in the military.
“There’s a lot of similarities between the two when you’re talking about what you have to sacrifice and what you have to give up to have success, some of the things you put yourself through early on to get to the end of the road,” Earnhardt said.
One new Guard soldier, Army Pvt. Kyle Fernandez got to ask Earnhardt a question as he stood under the shade of the Guard RV’s large awning.
“It was a great privilege,” Fernandez said. “I knew I would have opportunities, but (I didn’t think they would include) speaking to Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Fernandez leaves for basic training next month. He and 17 other new Guard members repeated their enlistment oaths at the grandstand before the race, carried in their state flags, unfurled the American flag, and watched Earnhardt navigate the 2.5-mile triangular track during the race.
“It’s a unit experience for them,” said Sgt. 1st Class Garfield McFarlane, readiness non-commissioned officer for the Pennsylvania Guard’s Recruit Sustainment Detachment in Wilkes-Barre. McFarlane prepares new recruits for basic training.
Earnhardt’s mechanics and pit crew members said they regularly take time at the races to speak with Guard members.
“I’m just thrilled that these guys enjoy themselves watching this,” said crew chief Tony Eury Jr. “We love to see the guys and hear their experiences. Dale Jr. and I have met them, and we get letters from over there, and that’s always a good thing.”
Pit crew coach and No. 88 tire changer D.J. Richardson said the crew enjoys spending time with visiting Guard members. “Every week we meet a bunch of them,” he said. “For a lot of them, it’s their first time here, and it’s pretty cool to see how they react to what we do.”
When the race started, Earnhardt immediately positioned himself into the top five. He “pitted” several times during the race, which allowed Eury, Richardson and other team members to make quick handling adjustments and tire changes. Earnhardt fell to 33rd after pitting on Lap 121. He quickly steered his way back through the pack but complained about how the “dirty air” made it difficult to pass. Still, Earnhardt was in second place with 17 laps to go, and he held onto fourth place in the race won by pole-sitter Kasey Kahne.
“It was hot today — very, very hot and not a fun day,” Earnhardt said. “We were pretty good at the start of the race; then I got a little bit loose, then a little bit tight there in the middle part and lost a lot of track position. But we gained it back with a little bit of strategy in the pits. It’s going to get hotter in the car the next couple of months.”