In motorsports, when someone says “Junior,” there’s no doubt who that means.
One of the most popular stars the sport has ever known, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make the last Sonoma Raceway appearance of his career next weekend in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
After suffering two concussions in four years and missing 18 races last season with the aftereffects, the man who saw his father die in a 2001 crash is hanging up his fire suit at the end of this season.
That’s seven years younger than his father, Dale Sr., was when he was killed in a final-lap wreck at the Daytona 500 — a crash that happened seconds behind Junior as he battled for the checkered flag.
It’s only three years younger than his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, was when the 1956 NASCAR Sportsman Champion died of a heart attack.
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Sonoma, Junior will mark his 18th and final race in Wine Country.
He will be searching for an elusive win at the road course after finishing in the top 10 two of the previous three years.
And undoubtedly, fans will turn out in droves to pay their respects to the man voted most popular driver for the last 14 years.
There will be two practice sessions Friday, qualifying on Saturday and the 110-lap Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday.
No public events or autograph sessions with Earnhardt are planned, though admirers will surely pack the stands and the new fan party area RevZone at Turn 7 to see the No. 88 car out with style.
“The name is magic in this industry,” Sonoma Raceway general manager Steve Page said. “His father was a legend; his grandfather was a legend. So the name Earnhardt and NASCAR are so indelibly linked that when he came, whether a blessing or curse, he came with the moniker that denotes so much history in the sport.”
Earnhardt said Sonoma Raceway is one of the most difficult tracks to drive, one of only two road courses in the Cup Series season.
“If we ever win there, man, would that be a shock,” he said earlier this year.
“We celebrated a top 10 at Sonoma with more energy and intensity than we celebrate wins anywhere else,” he told race officials. “We went home after a third place a couple years ago (2014) and partied harder than we did when we won the Daytona 500.”
Discussing the 10-turn, 1.99-mile course, he said it was one of the most physically demanding races of the year. Instead of making left turns on an oval all afternoon, Sonoma’s road course is composed of turns, straightaways, areas of breaking and accelerating, and yes, turning right.
“You’re using a lot of muscles in your body you don’t (normally) because you’re turning right, a lot of things in your neck and back that you don’t typically use are getting used. And you’re just not ready for it,” Earnhardt said.
“The heat’s intense and it’s just a really difficult, challenging race. To come out of there with any kind of result in the top 10, I’m like, ‘Heck yes, let’s get outta here.’”