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Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to site of 1st Cup Series victory

| Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, 6:45 p.m.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, looks on as Eddie Gossage, president and CEO of Texas Motor Speedway, sits atop a horse and Earnhardt's wife Amy takes a photo during a presentation in the media center before Sunday's NASCAR Cup series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, looks on as Eddie Gossage, president and CEO of Texas Motor Speedway, sits atop a horse and Earnhardt's wife Amy takes a photo during a presentation in the media center before Sunday's NASCAR Cup series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, pets a horse with Eddie Gossage, president and CEO of Texas Motor Speedway, atop during a presentation in the media center before Sunday's NASCAR Cup series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. The therapy horse has been named in honor of Earnhardt Jr. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, pets a horse with Eddie Gossage, president and CEO of Texas Motor Speedway, atop during a presentation in the media center before Sunday's NASCAR Cup series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. The therapy horse has been named in honor of Earnhardt Jr. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Dale Earnhardt Jr. never realized how special Texas would become in his life, both professionally and personally.

It was at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000 when he got his first Cup Series victory, as a 25-year-old driver who was greeted in victory lane by his famous father who was then his car owner. That came two years after Junior got his first victory in NASCAR's second-tier series at the same track.

“Texas has been so awesome to me,” Earnhardt said Friday. Earnhardt's wife, Amy, is from the Lone Star State.

“I got a whole other family down here. That is a big, big bonus of being married to her,” he said. “Texas is a place that is almost like a second home. I find I love more and more about it the more time I spend here.”

With Earnhardt back in Texas for his last race there as a full-time Cup driver, track president Eddie Gossage rode a horse into the media center to recognize NASCAR's most popular driver. The horse wasn't a retirement gift, but the track is sponsoring a therapy horse in his name at a ranch only a few miles from the track that helps people with disabilities along with veterans and first responders.

Earnhardt has encouraged tracks to give charitable gifts in his name instead of traditional presents while on his farewell tour. Texas did both.

Gossage presented Earnhardt with the top of the electronic scoring pylon from his first Cup victory, with the No. 1 spot lit up with number 8, his car number at the time. The track also gave the Earnhardts, who are expecting their first child, a pink stroller that is a small replica of a classic Chevy convertible and other baby gifts.

In April 1998, Earnhardt got his first NASCAR win when he won the Busch Grand National race in Texas. Just before taking the checkered flag, an excited Junior expressed his love to his father on the radio.

Two years later, in his only his 12th Cup start, Earnhardt had a dominating victory at Texas. He won by nearly 6 seconds after twice seeing long leads erased by yellow flags.

“It did amazing things for my career,” Earnhardt recalled Friday. “We had won a lot of races in the Xfinity Series, but I thought, ‘Man, the Cup series is a whole other level. These are the pros. I don't know how I'm going to fit in there and get a win with all these guys doing so good.' ... I was surprised myself that we won so soon, and it really did a lot for our career.”

Earnhardt is set to make his 30th Cup start at Texas on Sunday, which will match Jeff Gordon for the most on the high-banked, 1 12-mile track. Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth also will make it 30 in Texas.

There have been 18 top-10 finishes for Earnhardt at Texas, second only to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson's record 21. But Earnhardt's first start 17 years ago was his only victory there, one of 26 in his career.

Johnson last year won his seventh Cup Series championship, matching the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty for the most in NASCAR history. The top season finish for Dale Jr. was third in 2003.

“I know that he's poured his heart and soul into racing,” Johnson said. “I see a guy that's very content in his own shoes and very happy and knows that he's given it all, even though he might not have the stats that his father did. He's still very, very proud of what he's accomplished, and I'm proud of him for that.”

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