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Done, Dale Earnhardt: Junior's final season ends without championship

| Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, 8:39 p.m.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., looks around during the final practice for the NASCAR Cup Monster Energy Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., looks around during the final practice for the NASCAR Cup Monster Energy Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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:

Dear Dale,

Thank you for all the memories here (at)Chicagoland Speedway!! Good luck in your future endeavors!!!

The Hoger Family

Bridgeview, Illinois

“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 for NASCAR's most popular driver:

Hi Jr.

Let's Go Racing

Randy Dunn

Dunn wrote his Marion, Ill., 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. “Whatever he wants to do is fine with me.”

Fan enthusiasm hasn't waned for Junior even as he has 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.

He strides through the garage hounded by autograph-seekers who know this is their last chance to receive that favored souvenir on their die cast, hat or poster.

There are 16 drivers in the NASCAR playoff field.

There's only one driver with the stature of Dale Junior.

Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. He delayed contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and 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 said he wants to start a family. He has won NASCAR's most popular driver award a record 14 times.

He wanted to win a championship for himself, his team and owner Rick Hendrick, but also for the fans who have idolized him because of his aw-shucks charm, candor and deep NASCAR roots. His late Hall of Fame father, Dale, won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”

Earnhardt just could never get it going in a bit of a lackluster season by Hendrick's lofty standards.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson had a quirky season in which his only three top-five finishes were wins. Chase Elliott made the playoffs on points and did not win a race. Kasey Kahne qualified with a Brickyard 400 victory but otherwise was so inefficient over his Hendrick career that he will be dumped at the end of the season with a year left on his contract.

“The pressure of trying to win the championship is not there, but that is a pressure that you kind of want,” Earnhardt said. “Even though you want it, it is not there.”

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. Gordon and Stewart won a combined seven championships. Just 10 laps shy of a championship, Carl Edwards abruptly quit at the end of last season. Danica Patrick, once an endorsement darling, saw her sponsorship dry up, lost her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing and likely is finished in stock cars at the end of the season.

Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are the young playoff drivers expected to carry that popularity torch held for so long by Earnhardt.

“I thought building a brand, why would I want to do that? It should just build itself,” Earnhardt said.

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