HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. bounded out of the media center and was instantly swarmed by fans snapping photos and shoving Sharpies in his face. Earnhardt was tailed until he walked up the steps to another TV interview.

“Did you see him?” a man yelled as more fans arrived a few steps too late to reach NASCAR’s most popular driver.

The chance to catch him is winding down.

Earnhardt will retire Sunday, ending a career that saw him emerge from his father’s intimidating shadow and grow into NASCAR’s favorite son over 18 full seasons. Hilarious and heartfelt, his folksy charm endeared him to the millions that comprised “Junior Nation” and made him a household name to the casual fan who recognized Earnhardt simply as NASCAR’s top pitchman.

Earnhardt has one final destination on his farewell tour, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track which over the last two years also helped the sport bid farewell to NASCAR greats Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. His legacy will be different from theirs, and not simply because Earnhardt never won a championship as they did. If anything, he was more beloved as an ambassador of the sport than any driver of his era.

The 20-something Earnhardt that retreated into his motorhome to play video games all night has matured into a 43-year-old man who will be flanked Sunday by his pregnant wife, his mother and his sister before he slides into the No. 88 Chevrolet one last time.

“There’s a whole other world out there waiting for him,” sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller said. “There’s his marriage and having a baby and doing other things in life, either professionally or personally that he hasn’t been able to do. He’ll have time for them now. It’s exciting.”

Earnhardt’s finale hit a bump Friday – he’ll start from the rear of the field because of an engine change in the Chevys. His one wish was to end the race on his terms.

“It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have the kind of issue that would take us out of an event and we couldn’t finish,” he said.

Earnhardt, dressed in a red T-shirt and red cap of his race sponsor, was at ease as he reflected on the end of a career that started May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished 16th – his dad was sixth – and he soon started his perpetual grip on NASCAR’s most popular driver award.

Earnhardt cracked jokes, quizzed his eligibility to race in an Xfinity race with a reporter and spoke with some regret on the misspent years early in his career.

“There were days when I would come into the garage to practice and everybody was in their cars pulling out of their stalls and I’m just walking in,” he said. “And, nothing was wrong with that, you know, in my mind. That’s crazy. I mean, you’d be fired in this day and time if a driver was that carefree about it. It didn’t seem to matter.”

He maintained much of that spirit even though he shaped up and ditched the lazy habits he kept at Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he joined the more buttoned-down operation at Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt has driven for team owner Rick Hendrick since 2008 after he split DEI, the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father’s 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR’s most powerful team.

He won a Daytona 500 with each team and 26 races overall. But he never won a Cup championship, or came close in achievements to matching his late Hall of Fame father, Dale, who won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”

A third-generation driver, Earnhardt wanted to win a title for himself, Hendrick, and the legion of fans who have idolized him for a generation. Earnhardt has been feted with charitable donations, his father’s race car, a barrel of pickles, and numerous video tributes from tracks, sponsors and teams. Budweiser, his sponsor at DEI, aired a tear-jerking appreciation of his days in the No. 88 car.

“They were all very emotional. Amy is the one that’s obviously the most emotional, with being pregnant and everything, so they’ve really been hitting her,” he said, laughing.

Martin Truex Jr. was the fastest of the four championship contenders in qualifying and will start second in Sunday’s finale.

Truex, the regular-season champion, turned a lap of 173.952 mph on Friday night. Denny Hamlin stole the pole from Truex on the last lap of qualifying. Hamlin went 173.980 mph to take the spot and give Toyota a 1-2 front row.

Kyle Busch will start third and Brad Keselowski fifth. Kevin Harvick qualified ninth.

TRUCK SERIES: Christopher Bell won his first career NASCAR championship to open a big weekend for Kyle Busch.

Bell finished Friday night at Homestead-Miami to wrap up the championship. He drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Bell was technically the favorite after a strong regular season in which he won five races in his Toyota. He only had to outlast three other title contenders to win the title at Homestead, and it was no problem for Bell.

Chase Briscoe won the race, the first victory of his career and in the last event for Brad Keselowski Racing. The team is closing after this race.