By Cole Cusumano
May 8, 2021 served as a near-perfect day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Darlington Raceway. Widely recognized as one of the biggest advocates for throwback weekend, the 15-time Most Popular Driver began Saturday by pacing the field in his father’s newly restored Chevy Nova dressed in Buddy Baker’s infamous ‘Gray Ghost’ paint scheme. Following the events that unfolded in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, this celebration of history evolved into much.
After a rough start to the 2021 season, everything appeared to be clicking for Earnhardt’s team in Darlington. All four cars placed top-10 at, including Justin Allgaier, who held off teammate Josh Berry for the victory and supposedly a third consecutive Dash 4 Cash winning performance by Noah Gragson.
Through nine races, JR Motorsports is now the winningest team in the Xfinity Series. This latest victory for Allgaier was one he’d been attempting to cross off his bucket list since he began his NASCAR career in 2005. In honoring the late Dale Earnhardt and his team owner simultaneously, it made this day even sweeter for the driver of the Good Humor ice cream Chevrolet.
Allgaier was vocal in crediting his victory to the South Carolina crowd — specifically, a man in a navy-blue shirt that flipped him off during the last pit cycle, citing he served as his biggest motivator. Following a period in which spectators were exempt from attending races, the driver of the No. 7 spoke on the importance of fan presence each weekend.
“I think the fans realized when they couldn’t come [to the track] and I think the drivers realized [too] how truly special and important they are to what we do,” Allgaier told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “We’re battling in a space where there’s a lot of opportunities for fans to do a lot of other things outside of coming to a NASCAR race.
“We’re battling in a space where there’s a lot of opportunities for fans to do a lot of other things outside of coming to a NASCAR race. You think about the amount of hours folks work nowadays, the time and energy they put into their jobs, kids other activities — you’re asking for a lot for them to come and spend their day or weekend here at the race track.
“It means a lot to us, because we understand the sacrifices that they’re making to give up that amount of time.”
In the end, Allgaier bested his teammate Berry by a .422-second margin following an overtime restart. Although unable to replicate the magic attained at Martinsville Speedway, there’s no way anyone can diminish the late-model specialists runner-up finish. With a victory under his belt and four top-10s in eight starts, it’s fair to question if any deals have materialized for the part-time drive of the No. 8 through 2021.
“I’m available to talk to really anybody and do whatever, but this is Sam [Mayer’s] ride the second half of the season,” Berry told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I knew that going into this and I think Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] was very adamant about giving me this opportunity and hoping something special could happen. I don’t really know what else I have to prove. We just try to keep working at it, try to find some sponsorships and try to find a way to put a deal together for next season.”
The only blemish for JR Motorsports’ day came in the form of Gragson’s assumed third straight Dash 4 Cash effort and race-high 40-lap leading performance. Turns out it was too good to be true, as the 22-year-old had to rescind his fourth-place finish and points amassed throughout the event, due to excessive travel within his car’s suspension upon post-race inspection.
While Gragson had to give up his $100,000 to A.J. Allmendinger and forfeit his eligibility for next week’s Dash 4 Cash, Allgaier and Berry will be among the drivers vying for the purse bonus in Dover International Speedway.
Regardless, Earnhardt was able to take solace in a dominant day at Darlington during one of the most coveted weekends during the year. The championship winning team owner ended Saturday by leaving the door open for the possibility of starting a NASCAR Cup Series program for JR Motorsports, saying “it’s now or never.”
With finances being the biggest concern for Earnhardt and the Next Gen car’s alleged business-friendly model set to debut in 2022, this could be the perfect opportunity for the two-time Xfinity Series Champion to take the next step in his ownership career. This was truly a day-long celebration that began honoring the past, evolved to the present and ended with inclinations of future endeavors for JR Motorsports.