Daytona International Speedway has a special place in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR legacy. He has two wins and eight other top 10 finishes in the Daytona 500, and he’s won the summer race at Daytona twice. It’s also the track where his father died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. On July 1, Earnhardt will compete at the famed track for the final time.
Earnhardt Jr. announced in April that the 2017 season will be his last one as a full-time driver, though his influence on the sport will be felt for many years to come. “I don’t think Dale Jr. can be measured as just a race car driver, because he is so much more than that,” says Steve Letarte, current NASCAR on NBC analyst and Earnhardt’s former crew chief. “Dale is all encompassing. He carried the popularity of a sport on his shoulders. Anyone who tries to separate what he does behind the wheel to what he does in the sport doesn’t know Dale Jr.”
It’s been a difficult year for Earnhardt on the track. Concussion problems ended his 2016 season early. At the time of this writing, he’s winless in 2017 and will be hard-pressed to qualify for the playoffs. “I was hoping he wouldn’t come back after having all the trouble he had last year,” NASCAR legend Richard Petty tells NBCSN’s NASCAR America. “I realize how hard it is to get out of the race car, because that is what we do for so long and enjoy so much. Whether you win or lose, it’s hard to give up. I’m glad he went along and made the decision.”
NBC Sports’ 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race coverage begins with the Coke Zero 400 July 1 in primetime on NBC. NBCSN and NBC combine to air the final 20 races of the Cup Series and the last 19 races in the XFINITY Series. The Cup Series playoffs begin in September, with six races on NBCSN and four — including the final three of the season — on NBC.