Race Weekend Central

Eyes on XFINITY: Remember When Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dominated the XFINITY Series?

On Tuesday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced that he would be retiring from full-time competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series following the 2017 season.  Although he may go down as the Most Popular Driver in NASCAR history, a Cup Series title has eluded him throughout his career.

Think back, however, to the late 90s, when Earnhardt was dominating the XFINITY Series. He picked up back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999 for Dale Earnhardt Inc., owned by his father.

During those two seasons, Earnhardt won 13 out of 61 races, the most of all drivers during that time span. He was the Kyle Busch of  the series, leading 2,340 laps over the two seasons, recording 34 top-five finishes and 44 top 10s.

In those years, he beat out current NASCAR stars Matt Kenseth, who finished runner-up to Earnhardt in 1998, and Elliott Sadler, who finished eighth that same season. Of all the current full-time NASCAR competitors, those three are the only ones still driving from the 1998 and 1999 XFINITY Series seasons.

Prior to those championship-winning seasons, Earnhardt competed part-time in the XFINITY Series, running one race in 1996, and eight races in 1997. The third generation driver picked up his first career top-10 finish at Michigan International Speedway, the site of  two of his 26 career Cup Series triumphs.

During Earnhardt’s Tuesday press conference at Hendrick Motorsports, he announced that he will be competing in at least a pair of XFINITY Series races in 2018, even though he his retiring from full-time competition in the Cup Series following the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19.

“I’m open to being a driver over at JR Motorsports when it works and benefits the company,” Earnhardt said during the press conference. “Certainly that’s why I’ve done that over the last several years.  It’s a critical piece of our partnerships in many instances over there.  So we’re definitely going to leave the book open to continue to do that, and open to do that, depending upon the packages that come across the table other.”

Ultimately, the 14-time Cup Series Most Popular Driver could end his NASCAR career where it began, in NASCAR’s top preliminary series, or even driving a late model, which is something he mentioned he’d consider in an exclusive interview with Frontstretch in 2016.

“I think it would be racing a late model race here and there with the late model program,” Earnhardt told Frontstretch at Pocono Raceway in June of 2016. “That’s reasonably affordable and would probably enjoy doing that on and off into my 50s and 60s if that’s what you wish. I think if I had an itch to scratch, that would be a good way to do it.”

Since creating JR Motorsports in 2005, Earnhardt has competed in 40 events for his own race team, picking up his first win with the company in his most recent outing at Richmond International Raceway last April. In the other 39 events, the two-time series champion has 21 top-five finishes and 29 top 10s.

2017 Atlanta NXS William Byron vertical Nigel Kinrade NKP
William Byron is the fresh face at JR Motorsports (photo: Nigel Kinrade)

Currently, JR Motorsports is fielding full-time rides for Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and William Byron. All four drivers are among the top 10 in series standings, including filling up the first three positions.

Earnhardt is scheduled to run two XFINITY events this season, at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 18 and Richmond on September 8.  He has a victory and seven top-five finishes in 11 starts at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. At Richmond, he has four victories in six career starts, sweeping the last three races he has competed in, dating back to 1999, his second championship season.

Back in his full-time XFINITY Series days, Earnhardt was one of the favorites each and every weekend. He was feared when he stepped behind the wheel of the No. 8 car, due to his success.

In 1998, he beat Kenseth by 48 points, however, Mike McLaughlin finished third in the standings, 424 points back. Randy Lajoie finished the 31-race season fourth in points, 926 points. The duo of Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. was the best in the XFINITY Series garage at the time.

One year later, Earnhardt was victorious by 280 points over Jeff Green. Essentially, the No. 3 car had a two-race cushion on the field, but that didn’t stop the young gun from Kannapolis, NC, as he finished second in the last two races of the season at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead.

“Coming out of the gate and winning two XFINITY Championships blew me away,” Earnhardt said in regards to one of his proudest moments in NASCAR during the press conference.  “I had ran 159 late model races and only won four.  I didn’t think I was going to get a job.  I thought, actually in ’97 dad came up to me and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller, sister) and said, ‘Your late model funds have dried up.’

“Going in there and winning those two championships and winning a little more than a dozen races in a couple years was incredible.  I was just shocked at everything we did every week.  And to be doing it with Tony Jr., Tony Sr., my family, Uncle Danny, to be doing it with my dad’s family team was just so fun.”

Overall, Earnhardt has 24 victories in the XFINITY Series, and he will have at least four more shots to add to that total going forward.

About the author

Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

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rg72

I guess I remember it the same way I remember all of Richard Petty’s Monster Energy championships.

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