By HANK KURZ Jr.
AP Sports Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not quite finished with racing.
The NASCAR fan favorite got back behind the wheel Friday night, led 96 laps and finished fourth in an Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway. It was his first race since he retired from the Cup Series after last season and became a father earlier this year.
“I’m probably going to run one more next year,” Earnhardt said, primarily because the revenue he brings in from racing allows him to support another car for 8-to-10 races. “It’s worth it for me to get out there, have a little fun, run a race.”
It was especially fun, he said, before the green flag ever dropped because his wife, Amy, and infant daughter Isla were with him.
“I was thrilled to have Isla there,” he said. “She won’t remember what happened today, but if I never run another race, I got to have her at one event and we got a picture at the car before the race that she’ll be able to have the rest of her life. It doesn’t matter to me if she ever thinks that’s a big deal, but I want her to have some understanding, I guess, of what I did before she was born.”
It was a moment, he said, that was “weird, but pretty cool.”
Now working as an analyst for NBC Sports, Earnhardt said he doesn’t want to cheat his new career.
“I love to drive and I just don’t want to do a ton. I want to be great in the booth. I know that this helps a little bit, but it also takes away from my ability to … see the weekend as a whole, understand what’s going on across the board.
“That’s where I want to be. I want to be in the booth for a long, long time,” he said.
Earnhardt had the lead until Matt Tifft beat him off pit road with about 30 laps to go. Christopher Bell then passed Tifft after a restart with 13 laps to go and won the first of seven playoff races in the series. It was Bell’s fifth victory this season, and he completed a season sweep at Richmond.
“To be able to come out here and win on a late race restart like that is really special,” said Bell, who won last year’s championship in the truck series. Justin Allgaier’s 32nd-place run also gave Bell the series points lead.
Ross Chastain rallied to finish second, followed by Daniel Hemric.
For Chastain, succeeding in a race where one of the sport’s biggest stars also contended had an extra cool factor.
“There is, man. I live close to him. I help pay the bills over there at JR Motorsports with my rent check every month – I make a small contribution – and we pass each other on the road now and then,” Chastain said. “I don’t think he knows what I drive, but I wave to him just like I wave at everybody else down that bumpy, bumpy road.”
It wasn’t Chastain’s first on-track encounter with Earnhardt.
“I raced with him at Dover in my first Cup race,” he said. “One run, we had our car really good, his car was really bad and I was able to clear him and I waved to him. About 10 laps later, I burned my front tires off, he went back by me and he waved back to me and I was like, ‘Wow. That’s Dale Jr. waving.'”
The race was the 31st in the series for Elliott Sadler, a Virginia native who grew up about 70 miles away and regularly attended races at the track. Sadler, who is retiring at the end of the season, was hoping to capture his first career victory on the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval. He ran in the top 10 most of the race and finished sixth.
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