What-ifs still hang in the air as Junior prepares for last run as Driver 8

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Nine months ago at California Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his car and took a sweeping bow in front of the crowd after his engine blew up during the race.

Little did he know at the time how poignant a moment it was, a symbolic gesture that would sum up the 2007 season. One unscripted bow would illustrate a season filled with frustration, stress, conflict, life-changing decisions and new direction.

Now comes the most difficult moment of all. When the Ford 400 ends Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC), Earnhardt will climb out of the No. 8 Chevrolet for the last time.

Some may say it's just a car. No big deal. And others will say Earnhardt is moving to a better place at Hendrick Motorsports, so he should feel elation.

But Earnhardt will unhook his belts knowing it's the last time he will drive for the team his father founded, an organization that bears his family name.

If it was your family name and your legendary late father's team, how would you feel?

Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the famous red Budweiser Chevy have been a part of Earnhardt's career since his first Cup start eight years ago.

When it's over, another bow of indignation isn't likely, but a rush of emotions is guaranteed. Life doesn't get much more emotional than this, and a ton of what-ifs are bound to go through his mind. Some of those involve Dale Sr.

"There's a lot of what-ifs about him," Earnhardt said Friday. "What would the sport be like? What would my life be like? What would my salary be and who would I not be dating because he didn't like her?

"He had a lot of control and you let him because he was right. I miss that. You could think long and hard about that. There's a lot of meat to it."

Earnhardt probably will wonder how his career would look if his father was here. Junior has said several times that things would be different if Dale Sr. still was the guiding force of DEI.

"I'm sad for him, not for me," Earnhardt said. "I will be sad for my father that things aren't different. His vision was different. He was such a great person.

"His vision was worthy and should be realized. That's a shame."

All of NASCAR would be different if the seven-time Cup champion hadn't lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.

And what about Junior? What if his father still was at his side?

Maybe that elusive Cup title already would have come his way had his father been around to guide him.

Maybe he would have experienced the joy of watching his dad become the first eight-time Cup champion.

And maybe they would have competed for a Chase title the way teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are today.

Maybe the path would have been different. What if?

All those feelings could flood Junior's mind when he stands on pit road in the darkness Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

No one knows him better than Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, his sister and business manager.

"Dale probably has a barrel full of emotions going on," she said. "He's leaving a great group of guys and our dad's business. But it's also a relief."

It wasn't all bad, not by a long shot. Earnhardt won 17 races, including the Daytona 500. He won the Pepsi 400 a few months after his father's death. He finished in the top five in the standings three times.

Can he win one more at DEI? The fairy tale ending would have Earnhardt taking the checkered flag Sunday and heading to Victory Lane for the only time this season.

But a glorious last hurrah appears unrealistic. Earnhardt has finished 23rd or worse in four of the last six races. His last top-10 was Sept. 30th at Kansas Speedway.

Earnhardt finished last after a crash at Phoenix last week, his ninth DNF of the season. He failed to finish six times because of an engine failure.

Earnhardt missed the Chase by one spot, while teammate Martin Truex Jr. made the playoff field for the first time.

As bad as it was on the track, the real turmoil was off the track. After months of soul-searching, Junior eventually decided he no longer could work for his stepmother, DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I had a lot of great wins in that car. The hardest part for me this weekend is knowing when I walk in the garage next year at Daytona, most of the faces I see in the stall today won't be there. I really feel like they're my brothers. It's stronger than a lot of people realize.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The speculation over what he would do and where he would go made Earnhardt the center of attention most of the season. He handled it amazingly well, never once losing his temper at the endless questions from reporters.

And never in history have so many people cared so much about a number, hoping Teresa would allow Junior to take the 8 with him to Hendrick.

That didn't happen, but the Earnhardt fans get double their pleasure with the No. 88 next season on the AMP/National Guard Chevy.

Earnhardt's season of discontent will end Sunday. A new chapter in his career will begin, one that he hopes will lead to the success he couldn't attain at DEI.

But Sunday is a day of introspection. Earnhardt isn't just stepping out of a car; he's leaving the only racing existence he has ever known.

"I had a lot of great wins in that car," Earnhardt said. "The hardest part for me this weekend is knowing when I walk in the garage next year at Daytona, most of the faces I see in the stall today won't be there. I really feel like they're my brothers. It's stronger than a lot of people realize."

In some ways, Earnhardt feels it's good to have a trying year behind him. In others ways, it's a hard reality of what he's lost. As Earnhardt walks away from the No. 8 Chevy one last time, he's bound to wonder what might have been.

What if?

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.