Texas Motor Speedway, Fans Send Dale Earnhardt Jr Off With Bang

Here in North Texas, the number "88" means something -- and not just on the football field.

It's brought NASCAR fans like John Magdaleno to Texas Motor Speedway every year for the last two decades.

"He is for real," said Magdaleno, who drove in from Houston to be at the race. "He's always been very humble and very appreciative. He always wants to do everything for his fans."

"He" is Dale Earnhardt Jr, arguably NASCAR's most popular driver this century, and an institution in the Lone Star State.

Don't believe it? Look no further than TMS' record shattering TV "Big Hoss", which has proudly displayed a Texas-size "88" each night since late August -- or the special "88" pretzels fans were gobbling up in the grandstands.

You could also simply ask almost anyone at the track.

"This is Dale Jr's last race, so it's the one thing we wanted to do," said Loren Dellinger, a Dale Earnhardt Jr fan who's watched him for years on TV, but had never been to a race in person until Sunday. "We wanted to come and watch Dale here. And hopefully the crowd sends him off in grand style."

And why wouldn't they? He's always had a special connection to TMS. It's where he won his first ever Cup race in 2000, the real launching point of his outstanding career.

Longtime fan Tracy Cainelli remembers it like it was yesterday.

"I was crying," sid Cainelli, who is from Arlington. "It was amazing because you could see the tears on [Dale Earnhardt] Sr and Jr at the same time."

Now, as Jr gets set to hang up his helmet for good, TMS President Eddie Gossage admits he'd love to hand him one more trophy -- the perfect compliment to the horse they gave him Friday, when they inducted him into the Texas Motor Sports Hall of Fame.

"It would be the same kind of thrill to stand there and know that you're presenting the last trophy to him of his career," said Gossage. "And it would be a real storybook kind of bookend deal to his career."

The fans would be cool with that too.

"I guarantee you there will be tears in the stands tonight if he comes cross that," said Magdaleno.

"I think everybody would be really pleased no matter who they're rooting for otherwise," said Cainelli.

"I think he deserves that," said Grant Dellinger, who grew up watching Earnhardt Sr and Jr with his own father. "And that would be a really good send off."

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