DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The day was eventually going to come when Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched the race cars ride by without him.
Now it's actually here.
Earnhardt, as he has every year since 2000, was at Daytona International Speedway for the first two weekends of the NASCAR season. He signed autographs, same as usual. He strolled through the garage, same as usual.
But when it came time for the cars to roll out for Sunday's Daytona 500, Earnhardt wasn't in his usual spot. He wasn't piloting the No. 88 car he made famous -- he was watching it from atop a pit stall, binoculars in his hands instead of a steering wheel.
Earnhardt retired from NASCAR in November, at the end of the 2017 season. When he first announced his plan midway through last year, he divulged that it was because he wanted to start a family with his wife, Amy. Or to travel. To do other things besides drive a race car 38 weekends a year.
What about now, though, being back in the thick of it? Being back at the World Center of Racing, on the sport's biggest weekend, with over a hundred thousand screaming fans in attendance?
Did that ever make him regret his decision to retire?
No. It did not. Rather, it did quite the opposite.
"As far as getting ready for the season, I've not really been that nervous," Earnhardt said Saturday. "It's actually been really nice to not have to worry about performance or living up to expectations, of your own or someone else's.
"It's been great to get all that off my shoulders."