MIAMI — Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s itinerary for Saturday is unlike any other plan he has followed in more than two decades of getting behind the wheel at NASCAR races.
He's going to fly to Homestead-Miami Speedway and arrive in the early afternoon. He'll go through a health screening, then sit in a rental car instead of the custom RV that usually serves as his home away from home on race days. He'll change into driver gear, hop into his JR Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet Camaro about 10 minutes before the flag drops for the 3:30 p.m. event and — without the benefit of any practice — hope for the best.
Welcome to pandemic-era racing, Junior.
"I'm experiencing this for the first time," Earnhardt said this week on his podcast.
Once that engine fires up, things should seem normal again for Earnhardt, who will race at Homestead-Miami for the first time since he closed his Cup Series career there in the 2017 season finale. He's in the field for one of the two Xfinity Series races at the track this weekend — Sunday's event is at noon, with the Cup Series race at 3:30 p.m. — for his third start on the second-tier circuit since retiring from full-time driving.
So far, that's been the extent of any comeback for Earnhardt, who was voted NASCAR's most popular driver by fans for 15 consecutive seasons and automatically would have been a fan favorite at Homestead-Miami this weekend — if, of course, fans were going to be at the track Saturday. There will be 1,000 South Florida-based members of the U.S. military in the stands for the Cup Series race Sunday, the first time spectators will be permitted at a NASCAR track since the coronavirus pandemic began.
NASCAR, which shut down in mid-March alongside other major sports around the country and the globe but returned in mid-May, could have an even bigger cheering section next weekend in Alabama at Talladega Superspeedway, where up to 5,000 fans will be permitted.
But on Saturday, the only fans watching Earnhardt in the No. 8 car again will be viewing on television.
"I haven't had a lot of opportunities to really sit in the car, drive the car, understand if it's comfortable, if there's anything wrong, if the mirror's in the right place or all those little things that you'd like to take care of during the first few practices," said the 45-year-old Earnhardt, who is now an analyst for NBC but did take part in some virtual racing during the shutdown.
"And so there'll be a couple things that might not be exactly right or exactly comfortable as we're racing, but I'm looking forward to it," he added. "I'm looking forward to getting in the car and just kind of enjoying the experience of driving a race car and competition."
His past two Xfinity Series starts went well: Earnhardt was fourth at Richmond Raceway in 2018 and fifth at Darlington Raceway last year. Now he returns to South Florida, looking to get the feeling back again — if only for a couple hours.
When it's over, his plan is to just fly back home.
"That's really the only reason why I would even run these races at this particular point in my life," Earnhardt said, "is to just sort of remember the sights and the sounds and the smells."