By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't know precisely how he'll feel when he races for the last time in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but he got a preview of sorts when his friend and crew chief Steve Letarte left the pit box for the TV booth at the end of the 2014 season.
"I know that I never really thought about what that would be like until Steve ran his last race with me at Homestead and he was as cool as a cucumber all weekend, at least in front of everybody, in front of me and the guys in the hauler and everything," Earnhardt said on Friday at Darlington Raceway prior to Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 (on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET).
Before every race in the final season together, Letarte would lean into the car, shake Earnhardt's hand and offer words of encouragement.
That pattern persisted until the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when Letarte leaned into the car and lost it.
"As soon as he come in there and started talking, he just fell out and started crying and balling like a baby," Earnhardt said. "And I thought, 'Man!', and I started crying, too, to be honest with you. It was a difficult moment. So I imagine that's going to be part of it for me, and it's going to be hard to not have those emotions at that last race."
Earnhardt will have much to deal with at Homestead. Friends and family will be there to witness his last race, and that will add significantly to the emotion of the moment.
"I know it will be emotional on Sunday at Homestead, that last race," Earnhardt said. "I'm going to have a lot of friends and family there because of that moment. I don't really have a lot of friends and family that come to the races.
"My mom doesn't come to many races at all, but to have all them there, it's going to make it more important and special for me. I'm not quite sure how that is going to work out."
FURNITURE ROW RACING'S 2018 ALIGNMENT STILL AN OPEN QUESTION
One car or two cars? That is the question for Furniture Row Racing, which added the No. 77 Toyota to its stable this year as a temporary home for Erik Jones.
But with Jones moving to the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the status of the No. 77 car is uncertain. Toyota would prefer the continued operation of the team to preserve six top-level entries in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Team owner Barney Visser, on the other hand, is loath to run the second team out of his own pocket, leaving the procurement of sponsorship as the decisive factor as to whether the No. 77 survives or folds.
Driving the No. 78 FRR Toyota, Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup racing, but Truex isn't sure whether the addition of a second car has made a real difference.
"That's a tough question, you know?" Truex said. "On one hand, we are two teams this year for the first time ever, and we're having our best season. This winter, I was a little nervous because I'm like, 'Alright, we're going to two cars. We've got a lot of new people here. We've got a lot going on. Is it going to take away from our team,' and it hasn't, so I don't really know.
"I guess if we're one car again next year then I'll know the answer to that question then. I really don't know. I don't have a feel for it. I think, for us, our second year together with Toyota and all that has really helped us elevate our program and be more consistent, because there's a lot less questions marks for us, you know? A lot more notes to go off and other things, but if we go to one car I don't know honestly how it will affect us, or if it will. We'll just have to wait and see."
VOTING FOR MOST POPULAR DRIVER AWARD OPENS SUNDAY
Starting Sunday, Sept. 3, fans can begin voting for the National Motorsport Press Association's Most Popular Driver Award.
The voting period opens at 12 a.m. Sunday and closes at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 19, the date of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Fans can vote for the award at www.nmpamostpopulardriveraward.com. Participation is limited to one vote per person per e-mail address per day.
Eligible drivers for this year's award are those who have declared for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
The award is administered by the NMPA and is the only major NASCAR award determined solely by fan vote. It has been presented annually since 1953.
Nineteen drivers have received the award at least once since the program began. NMPA Hall of Fame member and 1988 series champion Bill Elliott holds the record for most MPD awards with 16; Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the award for the past 14 seasons.
Earnhardt is stepping down from competition in NASCAR's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at season's end and consequently is in his last season of eligibility.