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For the first time in 18 years, the Daytona 500 won’t have a familiar name on the starting lineup. NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., retired from full-time Cup racing at the end of 2017, and Sunday’s season opening Daytona 500 will be the first time since 2000 that Earnhardt won’t be racing.

That doesn’t mean Earnhardt wasn’t busy during NASCAR’s short off-season. He and wife Amy are getting ready for their first child. He also has his Whisky River restaurants, a car dealership in Tallahassee, Florida, and NBC sent him to be part of their Super Bowl coverage a few weeks ago. In addition to all that, Earnhardt has been a full-time NASCAR team owner for several years. Saturday Earnhardt watched as two of his cars finished first and second in the season opening NASCAR Xfinity race at Daytona.  

“I haven’t had a whole lot of time to sit around and … Amy says when I’m home and don’t have anything to do, I just get up off the couch and pace around the house and then sit back on the couch and complain,” Earnhardt said. “So, it’s probably good that I’ve been so busy, and I’ve enjoyed it. “

The couple also worked on rehabbing an old home in Key West, Florida, for a show that will debut on the DIY Network later this year.

“The whole experience has really been educational for me,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s helped me and Amy learn how to work together better. It’s been a great practice for our marriage.

“You know, genuinely it’s been a great experience for both of us to do this, and we started off sort of butting heads a little bit and getting in there and doing the work wasn’t always a lot of fun, but as we got going and we got more invested in it, it’s been a great experience. And I can’t wait for people to see the whole process. It’s really, really incredible.”

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For the first time since the turn of the century, Earnhardt didn’t spend the off-season preparing for another 36-race season, and didn’t have to worry about preparing for NASCAR’s biggest race, the storied Daytona 500. And, as it turns out, that’s perfectly okay with Earnhardt.

“It’s actually been really nice to not have to worry about performance or living up to expectation of your own or someone else’s,” he said after celebrating his driver’s Xfinity win. “It’s been great to get all that off my shoulders. This is the first race we’ve won on a Saturday I have not had to worry about Sunday. I walked around every day of my life with a thousand pounds on my shoulders that was Sunday, what was going to happen, how was I going to run, and I think every driver does that.  

“Now that that’s off my shoulders and I don’t have to worry about that anymore, everything in my life is so much more enjoyable.”

As the rest of the Monster Energy Cup Series leaves Daytona Sunday night and gets ready for next week’s race in Atlanta, Earnhardt, who will join the NBC team as an analyst in July, heads to South Korea, where he will be part of the network’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“Racing, I loved driving cars on Sunday,” he said. “But it made everything else sit in the backseat, and it made … everything else was nowhere near as enjoyable as it could have been or should have been maybe because of the pressure I put on myself for Sunday.  

“But all that out of the way, man, life is … I’m living, I’m loving, I’m having a good time.”

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