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Fennelly: Dale Jr. keeps it real for his adoring Tampa fans

TAMPA — It was 9:30 in the morning Thursday and she had been waiting for two and a half hours in the heat outside a Walmart on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa. She was first in line. That mattered to her. Why she showed up so early mattered even more.

"Junior," Crystal Graham said. "I have to see him before he goes."

Graham, 29, from St. Petersburg, was at the head of the class. At 10 a.m., she was the first of 200 fans to receive a green wristband for a meet-and-greet with retiring NASCAR giant Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, who made a two-hour appearance organized by Walmart and longtime sponsor Mountain Dew.

There are only eight races left in the NASCAR season. Earnhardt, 42, isn't racing for the points championship. He didn't make the playoffs. He hasn't won a race since 2015 and has only one top-five finish in 2017. It didn't matter to those who braved the heat Thursday morning.

It didn't even matter that Junior, in stark contrast to many leaders in his sport, lent some eloquent support this week for the rights of athletes staging protests during national anthems.

"It's just the way he is," said Saraid Candelario, 53, of Temple Terrace. She was second in line. "He's just a different kind of driver. He's the same person off the track. When he opens his mouth, he doesn't lie. He can't lie."

It was 10 in the morning. Crystal had her wristband. She suffers from hydrocephalus and is on permanent disability. Earnhardt was not scheduled to arrive for five and a half hours. Crystal wasn't leaving.

"This is the main thing on my bucket list," Graham said. "I told my dad that if I die five minutes after meeting Junior, I'll have died a happy woman."

An area had been cleared out inside the store. Men's wear section. Cases of Mountain Dew had been arranged to spell out "Dale Jr. 88" – Junior's car number.

The line grew. It stretched from the food aisles, cookies, crackers, canned fruit, past sleepwear and loungewear, past women's undergarments, stockings and socks, all the way down to shoes.

There were men, women and children in line. There were fathers and mothers. There were grandparents. They held hats and cars and posters for Earnhardt to sign. They would shake his hand, get an autograph and pose for a picture with Junior.

[MARTIN FENNELLY | Times]

Tom and Judy Long came to Tampa from Sebring to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Tom and Judy Long from Sebring were in line. Tom, 84, sat in his wheelchair, with tubes in his nose and a small oxygen tank on his lap. Also on his lap was a car for Earnhardt to sign. Tom wore a Junior race shirt and hat. Judy said Tom suffers from osteoporosis, bladder cancer and dementia.

"Flip a coin," Tom said with a smile.

But he had to see Junior.

"He's made our whole house for Senior and Junior," Judy said.

Junior and his late father will always go together, even though Earnhardt has now been gone for more than 16 years.

Crystal Graham sat on a small stool someone had given her. Junior would arrive in an hour. She nervously tapped a foot on the floor. She was shaking. This was bucket list. The thrill of her life.

At around 3:30 in the afternoon, word went out: Junior was in the building.

Earnhardt soon arrived in Men's Wear and popped up on a small stage.

Crystal began wiping tears from her face.

The Junior Effect.

It was classic Earnhardt: jeans, T-shirt, ball cap. That's who the guy will always be, never mind his millions in earnings. Thursday, he was the Junior everyone expected.

[LOREN ELLIOTT, Times]

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hugs young fan Logan Stokes, 7, at a Walmart in Tampa. Earnhardt Jr. spoke to fans about his passion for racing and upcoming retirement before signing autographs.

Okay, so he strayed early this week, at least from the NASCAR party line. After the NFL players protested, Earnhardt tweeted his support for their rights, even invoking President John F. Kennedy.

Earnhardt has since refined his remarks, saying he has no intention of protesting during the anthem. But he didn't back down from supporting people's rights.

"He's taking a lot of backlash right now, but he's one of the most patriotic drivers in NASCAR," Saraid Candelario said. "But he let his opinion known. That's who he is."

Earnhardt spent an hour and a half with the cheering crowd. He didn't speak with media, but did answer questions from fans, submitted in writing or online. He talked about his new career. He'll be a TV analyst next season.

"I haven't had a job in 20 years, so I'm nervous," he said with a grin.

One more thing …

"I think I'll miss the fans the most," Earnhardt said.

Crystal smiled wide.

Fennelly: Dale Jr. keeps it real for his adoring Tampa fans 09/29/17 [Last modified: Friday, September 29, 2017 12:58pm]
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