DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is preparing for the end of his NASCAR career and understands it likely won't finish the way he hoped when he returned from injury this season.
Earnhardt, the most popular driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, is 22nd in points and far outside the playoffs. Given the way his season's gone, Earnhardt accepts he'd need a miraculous finish to chase a title before he's done as a fulltime racer.
"I mean, it will either work out for us or it won't," Earnhardt said. "I have been in this situation before and I have certainly come to terms with how my season has went. Am I happy about it? No. Am I satisfied? No. What we are as a team (is) trying to steer ourselves in the right direction positively."
That starts Sunday night at the Southern 500. It's a track Earnhardt is fond of — and which now has a luxury suite section, "Earnhardt Towers," dedicated to himself and his late father — even though he's without a victory at the track "Too Tough To Tame" since first coming here as an Xfinity driver in 1998. His best finish was a second in the Southern 500 to Kevin Harvick in 2014.
"It's really rewarding when you get it right. And if you don't get it right it's a long weekend really for anybody outside the top three," Earnhardt said.
Those most likely to get it right Sunday night are defending Darlington champion and series points leader Martin Truex Jr., Bristol winner Kyle Busch, who won here in 2008; and Jimmie Johnson, a three-time winner this year seeking his first Darlington win since 2012.
Harvick won the pole Saturday, holding off Truex in second and Kyle Busch in third. Earnhardt will start his final Darlington race in 22nd.
Don't expect racers on or near the cut line — Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray are the final three in the 16-team playoffs without a win — to take too many risks since Darlington and Richmond are so dependent on fresh, new tires.
"There's not going to be any amazing (pit) calls here," McMurray said.
It was only a year ago, Earnhardt came to Darlington as an injured racer, updating the world on his progress at dealing with symptoms and vowing to come back. He had a final test last December that showed he had recovered and NASCAR gave Earnhardt the green light to return. In April, the 42-year-old Earnhardt announced his retirement at the end of what he anticipated would be a final championship try.
Instead, Earnhardt's No. 88 has been beset by speed issues and bad luck. After qualifying second at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt was caught up in an accident that left him in 37th. Things haven't progressed much since then and Earnhardt's had just four top 10 finishes and led just 21 laps the first 24 races.
"It's been fairly depressing," said Earnhardt's sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller. "It seems like it's just some luck things that happen here and there, and things that are beyond his control. It's certainly not the season of how I know that he would want this last season to be. It's not a lot to write home about lately, so it's been pretty depressing and disappointing."
Miller said she'll text Dale Jr. often to just keep his head up and focus on what's important. He's gotten the message.
He recalled how in 2004 Earnhardt and his brain trust, Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., split apart despite success.
"We went from winning six races, happy as we could be, worked together all our lives and in one month couldn't stand to be in the hauler together, didn't even want to talk to each other," Earnhardt recalled.
Earnhardt won't let that happen again this year, win or lose.
"I don't want my guys to remember this season because we fought and fell apart and got negative and nasty and short with each other," Earnhardt said. "I want those guys to remember it, even if we don't win, or have success, I want them to remember that we worked our guts out and we stayed at it to the very end."
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