LOUDON, N.H. — Sunday will mark Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 35th and final appearance at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He has never won at Loudon. The outgoing driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has averaged a 15th-place finish.
“A lot of close almost-wins,” Earnhardt said. “I had some cars that should have won, probably, on a few occasions. I led some races here and ran well. The times we had really great cars, someone just had a little bit better racecar.”
Yet Earnhardt will leave with respect for the 1.058-mile circuit.
“Racing here is really fun,” said the 42-year-old. “I had a pretty good time figuring out how to get around. It’s really challenging.
“It’s one of those tracks where it’s hard to pass, but in a fun way, which is rare. Usually a lot of tracks where it’s hard to pass, you’re not enjoying it too much. You can get to people and catch them. You’ve just got to work around them.
“It’s just an old-school short-track feeling. The straightaways are forever. But it still has a short-track feel to it.”
Earnhardt is retiring partly because of his concussion history. He was unavailable for both NHMS races last year because of post-concussion symptoms. Alex Bowman filled in on both occasions, and he will be Earnhardt’s full-time replacement next year.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who did not qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, enters the ISM Connect 300 in 22nd place in the point standings. He has not won this year. He will leave the Monster Energy Cup Series without a championship. None of this has kept Earnhardt from being the garage’s biggest star.
It will be impossible for NASCAR to replace this scion of an iconic seven-time champion. Nobody is expecting Bowman to approach Earnhardt’s popularity. The collective strength of Hendrick Motorsports, however, may make Bowman competitive at tracks where Earnhardt has come up short.
Earnhardt will still be a track regular. He will join NBC Sports as an analyst next year.
“I’m going to see it from a different angle and experience race weekend at all these tracks,” Earnhardt said. “I’m going to see and experience this race and weekends differently. It’ll be fun. It’ll be enlightening.
“Every time I’ve been in the booth around those guys, I’ve been blown away and overwhelmed. It’s more exciting than I could imagine. I’m excited to come back and go through this process next year and to go to all these tracks. But I’ll miss being in the garage.”
On Friday, track officials presented Earnhardt with some New England-themed farewell gifts: a powder horn, tricorner hat, and musket.
Ground to make up
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did not start the playoffs well. The Roush Fenway Racing driver finished 25th last week at Chicagoland Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford is 14th among the 16 playoff pilots, 80 points behind Martin Truex Jr.
“It’s the worst playoff race I’ve ever had,” Stenhouse said. “Actually, it was only the first playoff race I ever had. It did not go according to plan. Luckily, with the wins and the bonus points we got, we’re still right there and still have a really good shot at it.”
Stenhouse could gain automatic entry to the second round with a win Sunday. It is an unlikely outcome, though. He has never led a lap at Loudon in nine career starts. He finished 14th at NHMS in July.
‘He will be missed’
The Whelen Modified Tour will compete in the F.W. Webb 100 Saturday without Ted Christopher. The 2008 Modified champion died in a plane crash Sept. 16. The native of Plainfield, Conn., finished seventh in the Eastern Propane and Oil 100 at NHMS on July 14. At Loudon, the 59-year-old was known as a hard-charging racer. He won 42 races during his 29-year Modified career. “Great wheelman and a great man,” said Jimmie Johnson. “When I started racing here in the Busch Series, Ted was a guy I met right away. We parked near each other and we were around each other. I knew the name. I was excited to be on the track with him. He will be missed. My heart goes out to his family, friends, and the racing community. He was such an icon around the area.” . . . Ryan Newman turned the fastest lap in qualifying (131.556 m.p.h.) on Friday.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.