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Motor sports: Cup playoff starts sans Junior

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Dan Gelston, AP

JOLIET, Ill. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. received a stamp of approval from fans wanting to write letters to the retiring star, wishing him luck.

Jennifer Hoger has attended races at Chicagoland Speedway for 15 years and penned similar farewell notes to former NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in their retirement seasons. She stopped at the red mailbox with No. 88 on the door to drop off her letter:

Dear Dale,

Thank you for all the memories here @Chicagoland Speedway!! Good luck in your future endeavors!!!

The Hoger Family

Bridgeview, Illinois

"It's just something I really wanted to do for him," she said. "He's just a regular guy when you see the way he interacts with people on pit road. He's just a great guy."

Moments later, a track employee picked up the latest haul from the stuffed mailbox -- she estimated 200 letters already had been written by Saturday morning -- and promised they would be delivered to Junior by the end of race weekend.

Randy Dunn had a simple note for NASCAR's most popular driver:

Hi Jr.

Let's Go Racing

Randy Dunn

Dunn wrote his Marion, Illinois, address on the note just in case Junior wanted to write back and maybe spend some time with him.

"I hope so. I'm a very big fan," Dunn said. "Whatever he wants to do is fine with me."

Fan enthusiasm hasn't waned for Junior even as he's stumbled through a disheartening final season that will end without a Cup Series championship in his 18-year career.

Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, has just one top-five finish this season and hasn't finished better than 12th in his last 10 races in the No. 88 Chevrolet. When NASCAR's version of the playoffs opens Sunday at Chicagoland, Earnhardt starts with a more modest goal of finishing the season inside the top 20 in the standings.

"We should've run well all year and gotten ourselves into the playoffs for all of our fans," he said.

Earnhardt has been feted at tracks all season, receiving donations in his name and framed photos of great moments. At Chicagoland, he cuddled a puppy as the track announced an $8,800 donation to a Chicago-area animal shelter.

He strides through the garage hounded by autograph seekers who know this is their last chance to receive that favored souvenir on their die-cast car, hat or poster.

There are 16 drivers in the playoff field. There's only one driver with the stature of Junior.

Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions for several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. He delayed contract talks on an extension, and the winner of 26 races decided in the spring to call it quits this season.

Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family.

Earnhardt is 22nd in points and qualified 20th for Sunday's race. He has one win at Chicagoland.

Tales of the Turtles 400 Lineup

FRIDAY QUALIFYING; RACE TODAY

AT CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY

JOLIET, ILLINOIS

LAP LENGTH: 1.5 MILES

(CAR NUMBER IN PARENTHESES)

1. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 187.963 mph.

2. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 186.168 mph.

3. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 185.893 mph.

4. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 185.656 mph.

5. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 185.236 mph.

6. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 185.084 mph.

7. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 185.077 mph.

8. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 185.065 mph.

9. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 185.039 mph.

10. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 184.024 mph.

11. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 183.949 mph.

12. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 185.147 mph.

13. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 184.641 mph.

14. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 184.414 mph.

15. (17) Ricky Stenhouse, Ford, 184.326 mph.

16. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevy, 184.281 mph.

17. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 183.874 mph.

18. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevy, 183.231 mph.

19. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevy, 182.970 mph.

20. (88) Dale Earnhardt, Chevy, 182.914 mph.

21. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 182.729 mph.

22. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 182.648 mph.

23. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 181.720 mph.

24. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 184.729 mph.

25. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 181.904 mph.

26. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 181.671 mph.

27. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 181.659 mph.

28. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 181.415 mph.

29. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevy, 181.366 mph.

30. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 181.336

31. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 180.729 mph.

32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 179.647 mph.

33. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 179.235 mph.

34. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevy, 176.730 mph.

35. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 176.551 mph.

36. (55) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 176.424 mph.

37. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 175.222

38. (66) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 174.261 mph.

39. (51) Ray Black II, Chevrolet, 170.218 mph.

40. (83) Brett Moffitt, Toyota, 0.000 mph.