HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The citizens of Junior Nation leaned over the railing to the point that it looked like it might buckle over. They were dressed in red and black and green and blue, their clothing and their skin adorned in old-school slanted 8's and second-generation block 88's.
Their arms were stretched, dangling merchandise in one hand and Sharpie markers in the other. However, they did not push and shove. Instead, they seemed to share a sensibility that they were all in this together. Unified by their desperation to get the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr., here on the morning of his final NASCAR Cup Series race.
"Dale! DALE! Over here! OVER HERE!"
There was Charles Ray, who'd driven to Homestead-Miami Speedway from Alabama. He held a pair of black helmets, covered in gold signatures. "Dale's daddy signed this for me at Talladega in 2000 and Dale Junior did, too. It was his first race there. But Junior's got smudged. I wanted him to re-sign it. Or at least see it."
There was Curtis Martin of Marathon, Florida. He was the lucky last fan to get Earnhardt's signature before the racer had to leave the rail and duck into the prerace drivers meeting, where he received a half-minute standing ovation from his racing peers.
"I can't believe it," he said, stunned and staring at his freshly signed die-cast car. "I really, really can't believe it."
Then there was Brian Martin of Merritt Island, Florida. He wasn't merely a Dale Jr. fan. He looked exactly like the racer, beard and all. This was the third different post he'd taken up, trying to get his doppelganger's autograph. But he was on the wrong side of his new friend Curtis, one spot too far down the line. "I'll get him," he promised. "I've got a couple of more spots scouted out. I have a plan."
As did Earnhardt. After seven months of public buildup to this day, his approach was simple. His list of demands, his farewell to-do list, was only five items long.
First, take care of the fans.
That's why he worked that line outside the drivers meeting with such deliberation. It looked almost like some sort of time-lapse photography. As the other 38 drivers in Sunday's race, especially the four contenders for the Cup Series championship, scrambled around him with the usual rapidity that racers have wherever they are, he moved at a crawl. There were fans, competitors and even a couple of celebrities ("Hey, isn't that the guy from 'Restaurant: Impossible'?!") all seeking a second's worth of time.
He scribbled and he signed and smiled and not until the last possible second did he apologize. "Hey, y'all, thanks so much!" He pointed to a homemade sign that read "WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH DALE!" and replied, "I love y'all, too!"
A little less than two hours later, he walked the catwalk that ran along the base of the Homestead-Miami Speedway grandstand, the thunderous applause building as he strolled. During the short stroll that followed, to the pickup truck waiting to carry him around the track and to his waiting race car, the crowd fell eerily silent.
"Why's everybody so quiet? This ain't no funeral!" said John Schunemann of Berlin, New Jersey, as he tried to spur those around him to restart their cheers. Earnhardt did his part, demonstrably turning his cap around backward, a move that became his trademark during the rowdier early days of his career, the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The same era that he'd chosen to honor with the red Budweiser-ish throwback paint scheme on his car, the red fire suit he wore, and yes, the red cap atop his head.
"Yeah!" Shunemann screamed as those around him also roared. "Hat backward! Go get 'em, Ralph!"
"Yeah, man," Shunemann said. "That's his name. Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. He even changed his name to that on Twitter this week. We all know that. Because he's like family."
That brings us to the second item on Earnhardt's finale to-do list: take care of the family.
As the Homestead race approached, Earnhardt's staff came to him and asked for the list. What list? The list that every superstar athlete has when they step into the arena for the final time. The list of friends, family, celebs and hangers-on that the star wants around him during his big night. Junior's list was eight people. ... Of course it was eight.
He wanted his mother and stepfather, his brother and sister-in-law, the guy who looks after his property and his wife (Earnhardt's cousin), and then his sister Kelley and his longtime friend and employee, Mike Davis. The last two were going to be there anyway for work. His entire JR Motorsports staff was in town to help handle the three cars they had contending for the Xfinity Series title on Saturday night.
So, the only folks who had to be flown in on race day were the six family members. That was it.
"The truth is my family is already here," he explained, speaking of the men and women who make their living traveling from NASCAR track to track nearly year-round. "I have two families. These people who are here with me every weekend at the track, and the people who are always behind me at home. To have them all here together was the most important thing to me."
Third, take care of one member of that at-track family in particular.
"Everything they had planned for him, he'd call me and say, 'Well, they want me to do so-and-so, so I told them you are doing it, too,' " Matt Kenseth said. "And I was like, 'OK, bud, whatever you say.' "
Kenseth explained it on Friday night as he was standing alongside his own retro paint scheme, a black and gold livery that harked back to 2000, the same season as Earnhardt's throwback ride. Earnhardt had arranged for a photo shoot with their two teams. They came in together that season, competed for Rookie of the Year (Kenseth won that), just as they had competed for Xfinity (then Busch) Series titles the two seasons prior (Earnhardt won those). Back then, they shared magazine covers as the futures of the sport. On Sunday, they both rode out together, Earnhardt by choice, Kenseth's hand forced by business circumstances.
On Sunday morning, Earnhardt's car was placed in an area separate from the other cars in the race field. He insisted that Kenseth's car be there, too. When NASCAR said they wanted Earnhardt to run a pace lap by himself, away from the rest of the grid, he also tried to include Kenseth in that.
"We went through it all together," Earnhardt explained of Kenseth, who won more races (39 to 26) and earned the one goal that always eluded his more famous friend. He said it while hiding in plain sight, having ducked into the very crowd clamoring to find him, sporting a face-splitting grin as he watched his pal pose with his team for photographers.
"Matt's had a Hall of Fame career," Earnhardt said. "He deserved the right sendoff, too. His whole crew does."
Oh yeah, the crew. No. 1 on Earnhardt's Homestead gotta-do list: take care of the crew.
His plan for them started weeks ago. He'd always missed an aspect of his early career in the Busch Series, when the race winner would be handed a case of cold ones to be distributed throughout the crew and consumed as they packed up their rig to head back home. In 2014, when he capped his first post-concussion comeback with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500, he surprised his team by rolling out a stocked cooler and restoring that tradition. On Friday, without the rest of the team knowing it, he'd asked truck driver Andy Quillan to fill two chests with Budweiser products and stow them away.
Finally alongside his racing machine on Sunday afternoon, he posed with his last Cup crew around his last Cup car, the unprecedented step having been taken of setting up a riser on the starting grid to accommodate all of the photographers. It was a surprisingly unemotional scene. It was downright giddy. Then owner Rick Hendrick arrived. When he slipped under the rope and grabbed Earnhardt around the neck for a hug, the team owner, his driver and both of their wives commenced to sobbing openly.
"I think maybe I should have waited until after the race before I came in here and made everyone cry," Hendrick said to the crew members, laughing as he dabbed his cheeks dry.
Later, as Earnhardt pulled down the pit lane shotgun to the field, his team was joined by every other crew on pit road, extending their hands for a half mile of high-fives, a moment that mimicked his father's greatest postrace celebration after winning the 1998 Daytona 500.
Billy Daniels, a millennial dressed head-to-toe in Dale Jr. Wrangler apparel, had tried to climb the chain link fence behind Earnhardt's pits. He snapped a pic with his phone before a security guard politely asked him to get down. He thanked the guard for being nice. "I know what I was doing was stupid. I just can't hardly take it, man. I just can't hardly take it."
Three hours later, Earnhardt flashed beneath the checkered flag in 25th place. His stated goal on Friday was to finish on the lead lap, running, and to have fun doing it. He missed on the first, doomed by a leaky tire, finishing three laps down. He met the second two. Especially the last one.
As his friend, discovery and former employee Martin Truex Jr. celebrated his championship on the front stretch, Earnhardt parked his No. 88 Chevy on pit road. In an instant, he was surrounded by people.
That made Andy Quillan's job very difficult. He snaked through all of those people, pushing a hand truck that carried the coolers that had been tucked away on the hauler. By the time Earnhardt had climbed from the car, hugged Hendrick, cried again, and then leaned across the roof of his car to speak to his team, he shouted "Where's the beer?!"
"Here it is!" the truck driver shouted back, as the first cooler was slammed onto the rear deck lid of the race car. The team drank. They shouted. They drank some more. Quillan said, "That should be the coldest beer ever. It's been on ice since Friday." Then he climbed atop the second cooler to get a better view of it all. From his pocket he produced his own drink, a Mountain Dew. "Hey, I gotta drive the truck back tonight."
The drinking continued. In part, because the moment was as awesome as Earnhardt had imagined. But they also kept drinking because they couldn't leave. What started as dozens of fans circling the car had become hundreds. Every time he took a sip, they cheered. Every time he smiled, they cheered.
And, there Dale Earnhardt Jr. was, his career over, completely encircled by all those folks he entered the weekend wanting so badly to make sure were taken care of. His crew ... and his family ... and those fans. All in the same place at the same time.
"When I was little, I didn't think I'd win the Daytona 500," he said. "I didn't think I would have the fortune to be around the people that I've been around. And to have done what I've done, inside the car or outside the car, never would have dreamed it. Never!"
There, still trapped in his moment, he talked about his father, his name, and the expectations that came with that. He confessed that all he'd ever wanted was to make his living driving race cars. Just to make enough to pay his bills and maybe have fun doing it. Then he paused and took in the people around him. The ones in his team's uniform and the ones wearing T-shirts with his name and face on them.
"I was able to make so many freaking friendships," he said. "Everywhere I look, there's somebody I care about. It just amazes me. I don't know why. I don't feel worthy of all that happening."
After nearly an hour, the impromptu party ended. NASCAR's biggest star took his pregnant wife by the hand, boarded a golf cart, and rode off into the next chapter of his life.