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What’s a fan to do when Earnhardt Jr. leaves?

Dale Jr. retiring

A Dale Earnhardt Jr., fan watches the pit crew from the other side of a fence in the garage after practice for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., Saturday, April 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)’

By Hank Kurz Jr.

AP Sports Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — For 14 years, NASCAR’s largest fan base belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Now the namesake son of racing icon and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt has announced he’s retiring at the end of the season. That’s left his fans — many having adopted him as their favorite driver when his father died in a crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500 — wondering where to place their allegiance next season.

At Richmond International Raceway — part of NASCAR’s top series almost since moonshine running spawned the racing series — many Earnhardt fans are letting their reverence for the sport’s history be their guide.

“Chase Elliott,” said Fred Kimmel, 69, who made the 9 1/2-hour trip from Boaz, Alabama to be at Richmond this weekend. “He’s a real good rookie and he’s learning. In a couple years he’s going to be pretty good at it.”

Dale Jenkins of Suffolk, Virginia, picked Elliott, too, but with a caveat.

“I’m kind of hoping that Jeffrey Earnhardt steps up really,” he said. “We were talking to him earlier and he said that’s a big shoe to fill, but if he gets the right team behind him and gets the right people, he can do it.”

Dale Jr.’s nephew will be in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race, too, but he will start 35th.

For Kimmel and Jenkins, it’s all about history. The younger Elliott is the son of 1988 series champion Bill Elliott, who drove in 828 races over 37 seasons and three times finished second in the season standings.

Kimmel switched his allegiance to Dale Jr. when he father died.

“I’ve been a Dale Earnhardt fan all my life, since I was a little kid, so I stayed with the family,” he said.

That’s also how Rob Frantz of Emmittsburg, Tennessee, wound up a Dale Jr. fan.

“He inherited me after about a year of contemplating what to do,” Frantz said, speaking of Dale Sr.’s death.

Now, he said he’ll swap his Dale Jr. drink cozy for one that supports young hot shot Kyle Larson. The somewhat cocky Chip Ganassi Racing driver in his second season leads the points race after eight events.

“He’s a young talent and I’m looking for somebody that’s going to be good for us,” Frantz said, adding that he thinks fans will stop worrying about the sport when they see there is plenty of young talent to appreciate.

The key, he thinks, will be “definitely getting the younger drivers to get connected with the fans. It’s really what the old school guys were about was connecting with the fans and I think it’s starting to happen.”

Those young drivers and other 20-somethings are certainly making a mark early this season.

When the green flag flies Sunday, 24-year-old Larson will start just 18th and Elliott, who is second in points, will start 14th. But Ryan Blaney, 23, will be on the front row for the third time this season alongside pole-sitter Matt Kenseth. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 29, will start fourth with Joey Logano, 26, sixth.

Larson believes there are plenty of talented options for fans. He just hopes that’s the route they take. There is a steadily dwindling audience of fans willing to shell out money to see races in person or even watch them on TV.

“Hopefully we all have a lot of Junior’s fans kind of dispersed to cheer for us and don’t just leave the sport totally,” Larson said. “It’s going to be interesting to see, with him retiring, how it changes the sport popularitywise. It could be good. It could be bad. Who knows?”

Several Earnhardt fans said they have no plans to turn away from the sport.

“I doubt that seriously,” said Kimmel, who will travel to see six races this year. “You know how hardcore NASCAR you are when three-quarters of your wardrobe has something NASCAR on it.”

Jesse McCartney, 27, of Virginia Beach is another fan who adopted the younger Earnhardt when his father died. He’s leaning toward becoming a Joey Logano fan because “he’s brash, he’s young and I like his racing style.” In any event, he’s no threat to walk away from the sport.

“Just got to move on,” he said, “like I did when his dad died.”

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