JOLIET, Ill. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. received a stamp of approval from fans wanting to write letters to the retiring star, wishing him luck.
Jennifer Hoger has attended races at Chicagoland Speedway for 15 years and penned similar farewell notes to former NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in their retirement seasons. She stopped at the red mailbox with No. 88 on the door to drop off her letter:
Thank you for all the memories here (at) Chicagoland Speedway!! Good luck in your future endeavors!!!
The Hoger Family
“It’s just something I really wanted to do for him,” she said. “He’s just a regular guy when you see the way he interacts with people on pit road. He’s just a great guy.”
Moments later, a track employee picked up the latest haul from the stuffed mailbox – she estimated 200 letters already had been written by Saturday morning – and promised they would be delivered to Junior by the end of race weekend.
Randy Dunn had a simple note:
Let’s Go Racing
Dunn wrote his Marion, Illinois, address on the note just in case Junior wanted to write back and maybe spend some time with him.
“I hope so. I’m a very big fan,” Dunn said.
Fan enthusiasm hasn’t waned for Junior even as he’s stumbled through a disheartening final season that will end without a NASCAR Cup championship in his 18-year career. Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, has just one top-five finish this season and hasn’t finished better than 12th in his last 10 races in the No. 88 Chevrolet. When NASCAR’s version of the playoffs open Sunday at Chicagoland, Earnhardt starts with a more modest goal of finishing the season inside the top 20 in the standings.
“We should’ve run well all year and gotten ourselves into the playoffs for all of our fans,” he said.
Earnhardt has been feted at tracks all season, receiving donations in his name and framed photos of great moments. At Chicagoland, he cuddled a puppy as the track announced an $8,800 donation to a Chicago-based animal shelter.
Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. The winner of 26 career Cup races decided in the spring to call it quits this season.
A third-generation racer, Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family.
Earnhardt is 22nd in points and qualified 20th for Sunday’s race. He has one career win at Chicagoland.
He is the latest — and biggest — star to leave NASCAR over the last three years, a brutal blow for a sport reeling from sagging attendance and sinking TV ratings.