By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- Tony Stewart had some sage advice for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as NASCAR's most popular driver faced his first season of retirement from full-time driving in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
"Stewart told me that first year's a weird one," Earnhardt said on Tuesday night before a gala at the Cosmopolitan simultaneously celebrating his career and his partnership with Nationwide Children's Hospital.
"I'm starting to understand a little bit of what he meant."
Earnhardt won't be away from the race track, though. He will be highly visible as the co-owner of his four-car JR Motorsports NASCAR Xfinity Series team and in his new role as a broadcaster for NBC Sports. For Earnhardt, that's the saving grace.
"It's felt weird, to be honest with you," said Earnhardt, who made his last run in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Being finished with the season and knowing that you're not going to go back and start another one is a weird feeling. Being away from the sport is so weird.
"Just being home for Thanksgiving is a very odd feeling and not a comfortable feeling at all. I'm always going to want to be at the track, and always want to be around the sport and involved in the competition somehow, some way. If I ever thought I was just going to quit cold turkey, I must have been kidding myself, because just being away for a couple days, it's difficult."
Tuesday night brought finality. It was the last event in the year-long "Appreciati88ion" tour celebrating Earnhardt's contribution to the sport, with proceeds from the night benefiting the Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Earnhardt and long-time brand manager Mike Davis emceed the show themselves, with Davis introducing a parade of surprise guests who shared stories about the driver in a "This is Your Life" sort of format.
Seven-time champion and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson took credit for getting Earnhardt to don Spandex and begin a regimen of bike riding, as well as for convincing him to start using Twitter.
NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton recalled the first time he summoned Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. to the sanctioning body's hauler for the first time, after Earnhardt's mouthing off on the radio at Bristol crossed the line.
Newly crowned Monster Energy Series champion Martin Truex Jr. made an appearance, along with "Dirty Mo Posse" members T.J. Majors (Earnhardt's long-time spotter), Shawn Brawley (Truex's former roommate at Dirty Mo Acres) and Josh Snider (Truex's first public relations representative).
Both Eurys were there -- Tony Sr. and Tony Jr. -- as well as drag racer Brandon Bernstein, who showed Earnhardt the ropes when he signed with sponsor Budweiser.
Dale Jarrett, whom Earnhardt credits with providing emotional support after the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., in the 2001 Daytona 500, joined former crew chief and fellow NBC broadcaster Steve Letarte on stage.
The program concluded with an appearance by former NBA star Charles Barkley who also provided retirement advice.
"You've got to find something to do," Barkley said over and over again.
For Earnhardt, that shouldn't be a problem.
In addition to his presence at the race track, Earnhardt is heavily involved in charitable work. Tuesday also marked the launch of the Dale and Amy Earnhardt Fund for pediatric injury rehabilitation, funded by a gift of $88,888.88 from the driver and his wife.
Earnhardt has made regular visits to the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and has taken both wife Amy and members of the No. 88 race team to the facility. Now that the Earnhardts are expecting their first child in May, the mission of the hospital has even greater meaning to the couple.
"Yeah, I think it does, especially some of the situations that the children and the parents are in," Earnhardt said. "They're clinging to the last hope, and obviously, the hospital's been able to save a lot of kids lives there that are born prematurely, and so forth -- saving lives that they wouldn't even have a chance of saving 10 years ago.
"Last time we went with the race team, we met some parents with a child that was born 20 weeks, I believe, premature, and we were in the hospital with the parents in the unit with the child on its birthday, on the day it was supposed to be born. And they had in front of them a healthy child. They could hardly get two words out without crying over their joy of having the opportunity to have that care, and that their child's life was saved, and they're going to take home a healthy baby.
"Those experiences you have really lock you in."
One thing Earnhardt won't be using to fill his time is an appearance on "Dancing with the Stars," which reportedly has been trying to enlist the driver for the television series.
"That's never going to happen, I promise you," Earnhardt said. "There's nothing in this world that would get me out on their dance floor."
What if Nationwide offered another gift to the fund?
"I would match it just to be able to stay off the dance floor," Earnhardt said. "I'd be willing to do a lot of things. That's not one of 'em."