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Dale Earnhardt Jr. hails IMSA growth; all but rules out Rolex 24 return

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Once his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career comes to an end in three weeks before he joins the NBC Sports team as a broadcaster in 2018, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have the luxury of picking and choosing where else he’ll race on a case-by-case basis.

But a return to driving in the Rolex 24 at Daytona is an unlikely one, Earnhardt said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s famous first run in the race with father Dale, then Corvette Racing regulars Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins in 2001 saw them end second in the GTO class and fourth overall. Teammates Johnny O’Connell, Ron Fellows, Franck Freon and Chris Kneifel scored a famous overall win for Corvette that year.

He also returned in 2004 co-driving a Howard-Boss Motorsports Chevrolet Crawford with Tony Stewart and Andy Wallace. Late-race suspension failure cost that car an overall win and dropped them to fifth overall, and third in the Daytona Prototype (DP) class.

Because of how the now merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series has increased in overall competitiveness and depth of field, Earnhardt said Friday that jumping in for a one-off is much harder now.

02 FEB 2001: The #3 Corvette GTS will be driven by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida. DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/ALLSPORT

“I don’t think I’ll be (driving) at the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Earnhardt told reporters Friday at Texas. “Back when we did those things, it felt easier to do those one-offs.

“That series is so competitive… you can’t come in as a hobby, and it’s ‘I’m gonna come in and have fun.’ It’s so competitive. That series has grown to be so good. It’d be like one of them flirting with NASCAR!”

Earnhardt said he wouldn’t want to be a drain on a lineup either. Rolex 24 lineups feature either three, four or five-driver rotations between the three classes.

“I don’t think I’d have the success I want to have or be in the equipment I want to be in. Working with the 24-hour race, to run that, you want to do it with people you know.

“I drove for Corvette and Crawford (DP). That was really nerve-wracking… and with teammates I don’t know that well and man, I don’t want to be the guy that screws that up. So it’s a completely different experience.

“If I were to do it again, it’d have to be with drivers I’m friends with. So it’s fairly unlikely.”

Earnhardt didn’t rule out attending the race as a spectator, as well as potentially visit other events.

“It’s a very fun race though. Staying up all night long, that’s right up my alley,” he laughed. “It’s such a cool atmosphere with the cars running around. It’s a race I might go have fun as a spectator at. Watch it on person, or watch on TV.”

As far as other events, Earnhardt said he’s limiting his future driving beyond this year to a handful of NASCAR Xfinity Series races with his JR Motorsports team, and perhaps Late Model races.

He’s never attended a Formula 1 race either and hopes to do that soon. Jeff Gordon, who co-drove the winning No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R at this year’s Rolex 24, has been at both the Singapore and Mexican Grands Prix this season. Daniel Ricciardo, meanwhile, said at Circuit of The Americas last month he planned to see Earnhardt this weekend at Texas.

“I’ve never been to a Formula 1 race. It’s something, you have to check that box,” Earnhardt said.

“There’s other series and forms of motorsport that I have equal interest in observing. So that would be awesome. I’m sure there’s opportunities that will present themselves.”