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When the cars line up on Feb. 18 for the running of the Daytona 500, NASCAR fans will undoubtedly feel like something is missing.

That person will be NASCAR’s longtime “Most Popular Driver,” Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Make no mistake — he will be there, as the former NASCAR driver will take on the title of Grand Marshal for the much-anticipated race. But for the first time in a long time fans won’t tune in wondering if Dale Jr. will take the checkered flag at the very same track that took the life of his father, Dale Earnhardt, back in 2001.

And that is something that is beginning to hit Dale Jr. hard.

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“I’m sure that’ll eventually go away, and I’ll get used to where I am and what this new chapter’s all like and what it’s about,” Dale Jr. said in a NASCAR Facebook Live on Jan. 19. “You’ll always miss it. You’ll always miss driving, and especially at Daytona.”

Indeed, while Dale Jr. has a ton on his plate at the moment, including covering the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in South Korea in the coming weeks in his new role as a contributor to NBC Sports, he admits that he’s not sure how he will feel when he hears the words, “Gentlemen start your engines” come Daytona day.

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“It’s definitely going to be an odd feeling,” Dale Jr. said. “I won’t feel that until it’s happening leading up to [Daytona 500]. It’ll be weird, I guess, when I know guys are at the track, and I’m not there. It’ll feel like, ‘Man, I’m supposed to be at the track.’ There’s gonna be a part of me that wants to be there, wants to be in the car, wants to be going through that process of getting ready for Daytona.”

Of course, he will still be there for his ceremonial duties.

“Now I’m going to be the Grand Marshal of the race, which should be a lot of fun, and that’s going to keep me occupied, and I’ll enjoy that for sure,” he said. “But when the cars roll off pit road, that’s a fun moment. That’s a really proud moment for a driver to have gotten through Speedweeks [the week leading up to the race, which includes qualifying] and positioned himself in the starting grid. It’s a great accomplishment to make that race and be in that race and be starting in it, so I’ll miss that. Rolling off those pace laps is such an emotional feeling for the Daytona 500, and to know that I won’t do that again is going to be a little difficult in that moment I’m sure.”

But there are so many moments that Dale Jr. has to look forward to, including watching his wife Amy Earnhardt bring their baby daughter into the world come May. If you ask us, Dale Jr.’s life is just beginning.

He is far from the finish line.

Tricia Despres is a senior correspondent for Rare Country, based out of Chicago. Join the conversation on Twitter at @RareCountry. We would love to see y’all there.
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