He was just a kid the first time I saw him at the racetrack. Now, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a full grown man only a couple of days away from ending his Monster Energy Cup Series career.  The Junior Nation may be dreading it, but he's not.

And he's not second-guessing or regretting his decision.

"This is great timing for me. It's time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can," Junior said during a press conference here at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "In my heart, it's run its course. I was more thankful to be able to compete this year than I was to ever question whether I should go farther."

"I'm sitting here healthy and I'm going to run this last race. I got through the year, so I feel blessed. I feel really good with it."

The one thing I've found intriguing throughout the second half of this season, as Dale Jr. met with media just about every week, he never shied away from a question and his answers were honest, insightful, and allowed everyone a chance to understand Dale Jr. the person, not just Dale Jr. the driver.  As he wraps it up this week, he's also willing to admit he didn't always give the sport what it was giving him until he was hired by Rick Hendrick.  "I learned so much at Rick's about being an asset to your team and being accountable and being available for your crew chief and being more than just holding the steering wheel and driving the car," explained the 43-year-old.  "When I was racing for my family, I took advantage and didn't take it seriously. 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. 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. As soon as practice was over, I'd go sit in the truck and if Tony (Eury) Jr. and Tony (Eury) Sr. hadn't asked me a question in five or ten minutes, I was in the bus playing video games for as long as I could. I was up until 2 in the morning playing video games on Friday and Saturday nights. I just had no idea how to take advantage of the opportunity that I was given. I'm sure I could have accomplished so much more if I had been plugged-in."

At Hendrick Motorsports, however, he had to plug in. It was expected. It was demanded.  "Steve Letarte said man, you're going to be in the hauler an hour or 30 minutes before practice. I was like whoa (laughter). There were a lot of these like, rules. And I learned right then that I needed to be held accountable, and that when I was, I performed and there were better results.  I was a different time back then when I was racing that Bud car. But if I had taken it as seriously as I did these last several years of my career, I'm sure there would have been some better results."

"We had a lot of fun and as far as I know, it didn't drive under Tony Jr. or Tony Sr. skin too bad about the way I was. But it's really two completely different extremes from the person I was then to the person I became racing at Rick's. Being around Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) I had to work like Jimmie and Jeff. They would call you out, you know if you weren't as focused. And that was how a driver at Hendrick Motorsports was supposed to be. And man, I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity to go work there and learn that. But had I been able to apply that to the first half of my career, I would like to have seen what difference that might have made."

Dale Jr. will end his career without a Monster Energy Cup Series Championship, but he did finish third in the point standings back in 2003, going to victory lane 26 times and was the runner-up on 31 occasions. Not to mention two Xfinity Series Championships and 24 wins on NASCAR's junior circuit.  And, oh yeah, he perpetually owned the most popular driver award.

Now, here we are on the final weekend and the Hollywood ending would have Junior capturing the checkered flag and dropping the mic as he heads off to the next phase of his life as husband, dad, team owner and TV broadcaster. It's not going to happen and Junior knows it.  "I'd like to finish the race in one piece," he said before going out and losing his engine in the first practice. "Obviously, you want to do as well as you can. But no matter where we finish I'd just like to be able to pull down pit road, stop the car, and get out. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have any kind of issue that would take us out of the event and not be able to finish."

Racing doesn't always give you what you deserve, but Junior does deserve, at least, a nice top-10 kind of day, something he can look back and remember fondly.  Then, he just needs to sit back and wait for his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Yes, he deserves that too.