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Earnhardt Jr. finishes 30th at Bristol amid late ignition issues

The conclusion of the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday, September 15, saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. stand outside of the care center and managing a small smile as he watched his JR Motorsports’ driver, Justin Allgaier, win the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff opener.

It occurred not long after the 15-time NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver and two-time Xfinity Series champion from Kannapolis, North Carolina, was forced to retire due to a late ignition issue that sidelined him from a potential top-five finish in an event where he ran upfront and was battling amongst the front-runners for the victory prior to his late retirement.

Making his first of two scheduled Xfinity Series starts while driving his own-operated No. 88 Hellmann’s Chevrolet Camaro, Earnhardt Jr. rolled off the starting grid during Friday night’s event at Bristol from 15th place. He managed to crack the top 10 at the first stage’s conclusion by Lap 85 and collect a handful of stage points while scored in ninth. Restarting sixth at the start of the second stage period on Lap 85, Earnhardt Jr. made his way into the top five as he was running third by Lap 125. Amid a handful of on-track incidents that wiped out his drivers, Josh Berry, Sam Mayer and Brandon Jones, Earnhardt Jr. managed to dodge the carnage and collect more stage points by finishing fourth at the conclusion of the second stage period on Lap 170.

Electing to remain on the track prior to the start of the final stage period and amid mixed strategy, Earnhardt Jr., who inherited the lead, led the field back to green flag competition with 121 laps remaining. He would proceed to fend off rookie Chandler Smith to clear the field, assume both lanes under his control and lead a total of 47 laps before pitting amid a caution period within 80 laps remaining. During the ensuing restart with 76 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. quickly carved his way up to fourth and would survive another late restart with 44 laps remaining to move up to third as he continued to mix up the competition amongst the Xfinity Series regulars.

Then while running in fifth place with 30 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. fell off the pace and directed his No. 88 Chevrolet Camaro to pit road before coming to a stop inside John Hunter Nemechek’s pit stall as smoke and fire were seen billowing inside the cockpit due to an ignition issue. Though Earnhardt Jr. was able to escape his smoking car, the ignition issue was enough to terminate his strong race on pit road and out of the race as he ended up in 30th place in the final running order.

“Somehow or another, the shifter tunnel caught on fire,” Earnhardt Jr. said on USA Network. “I saw some smoke in the car. I smelled it and I was like, ‘Hopefully, that’s not me’. That last lap, I saw a big fireball down in the tunnel in the car and I felt it. My uniform was burning up. I was like I can’t keep going. I gotta stop. I hate it. We were gonna finish in the top 10, maybe top five. We had a shot at winning it if the car was gonna run good at the end. I had fun.””

The result that left a small burnt mark on his fire suit, though, could not keep Earnhardt Jr. from smiling from both an owner and driver’s perspective amid his strong and “fun” run as he also celebrated Allgaier’s victory and automatic transfer to the Playoff’s Round of 8.

“I had a blast,” Earnhardt Jr. added. “Check that box. The Hellmann’s car was fast. We drove up there and led laps legitimately. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Man, what’s going on?’ It makes me wanna do more, but I’m going to Homestead. I’ll see everybody there. We’ll have some fun at Homestead riding the fence.”

Friday night’s Xfinity event at Bristol marked Earnhardt Jr.’s 145th career start in the series and his first since competing at Martinsville Speedway in April 2022. It also marked his sixth Xfinity start since retiring from full-time Cup Series competition at the conclusion of the 2017 season, where he has notched three top-five results and five top-15 results since 2018. To go along with 26 career victories in the Cup circuit, including two Daytona 500s, Earnhardt Jr. is also a 24-time race winner in the Xfinity circuit, with his latest victory occurring at Richmond Raceway in April 2016.

With his first Xfinity Series scheduled start of this season at Bristol complete, Earnhardt Jr. will make his second and final series start of this season at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, October 21, with the event’s coverage slated to occur at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of


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