Phoenix Says Adios to Champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Phoenix International Raceway should have a special place in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s heart. He traditionally did well on the unconventional dog leg mile track, but his last victory in the NASCAR Cup Series was there in 2015.
In that race, a highly uncharacteristic rainstorm occurred and the 500-mile race was shortened to 219 laps with Earnhardt leading when the flag was thrown. He ended up leading 22 laps before the flag dropped and that proved to be his 26th and last NASCAR Cup victory. That was also his third win that season.
Earnhardt did well at Phoenix over the years, racking up three trips to Victory Lane. That's the third most victories, trailing only Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. He started thirty races here and had nine top-five finishes over the years. Ironically this was everybody's last race at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) as next spring it gets renamed ISM Raceway
Earnhardt noted before his last race at PIR that "I've always had a lot of respect and appreciation for the track, but I didn’t know that we would have so much success here, so that's certainly made this place very special to me… Ever since we started winning here, I've loved the opportunity to come back and compete."
Showing his true character, Earnhardt asked the track promoters to not give him any gifts during his last season as a racer but instead, sponsor local charities. But Bryan Sperber, the president of PIR "slightly" ignored him. It turned out that Dale Jr. loves the Mrs. Klein's brand of pickles made here in Arizona. So much so, that his crew would snag a case or so to take back home after each race. But this year Sperber talked the producers at Mrs. Klein's to create a batch specifically for Junior called "Dill Jr.'s" and so he had a whole barrel of pickles to take home.
But the folks at PIR honored his altruistic wishes by donating $100,000 to Childhelp, an Arizona charity focused on combating child abuse. One week earlier Earnhardt was at the SEMA Show for his sponsor Axalta. He was only there for a two-hour promotion to pose for pictures and sign autographs, and the line naturally formed as soon as the doors opened. But despite the time pressure, I noticed that he took the time to speak with his fans and graciously posed for endless pictures. Since he'll be retiring, the chances to see him in that setting will greatly diminish.
Junior finished tenth at this fall race, which was his fifteenth top ten finish here at PIR. So Phoenix will be special for Dale Earnhardt Junior, and he will always be special to the fans here in Phoenix.