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 NASCAR Cup 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 open 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-based 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, hat or poster.

There are 16 drivers in the NASCAR playoff field.

There’s only one driver with the stature of Dale Junior.

Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. He delayed contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and the winner of 26 career Cup races decided in the spring to call it quits this season.

A third-generation racer, Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family. He has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times.

He wanted to win a championship for himself, his team and owner Rick Hendrick, but also for the fans who have idolized him because of his aw-shucks charm, candor and deep NASCAR roots. His late Hall of Fame father, Dale, won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”

Earnhardt just could never get it going in a bit of a lackluster season by Hendrick’s lofty standards.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson had a quirky season in which his only three top-five finishes were wins. Chase Elliott made the playoffs on points and did not win a race. Kasey Kahne qualified with a Brickyard 400 victory but had otherwise been so inefficient over his Hendrick career that he’ll be dumped at the end of the season with a year left on his contract.

“The pressure of trying to win the championship is not there, but that is a pressure that you kind of want,” Earnhardt said. “Even though you want it, it is not there. There is a concern, I guess, that you could get sort of complacent and go through these races and maybe some of the urgency or importance falls away a little bit because there is no ultimate carrot about there like that championship trophy.”

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

Allgaier wins Xfinity race at Chicagoland

Justin Allgaier threw a victory bash in front of his home-state fans.

Allgaier pulled away off the final restart and won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Allgaier, from nearby Riverton, won for the second time this season in NASCAR’s second-tier series. JR Motorsports had a banner day with Allgaier’s win and the official coronation of Elliott Sadler’s regular-season championship.

“This is a race track I’ve loved dearly for a number of years,” Allgaier said. “The whole connection of being from Illinois and getting to go to victory lane was incredible.”

William Byron and Michael Annett give JR Motorsports four drivers in the Xfinity Series playoffs. Byron, who will replace Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 car next year at Hendrick Motorsports, enters the postseason as the points leader.

“If we have the opportunity to compete against each other at Homestead, once the green flag drops, it’s every man for himself,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

Xfinity opens its postseason next week at Kentucky Speedway.

The rest of the playoff standings look like this: Allgaier, Sadler, Daniel Hemric, Brennan Poole, Ryan Reed, Jeremy Clements, Cole Custer, Blake Koch, Matt Tifft, Brendan Gaughan and Annett.

Byron has three wins this season and should be the driver to beat in the seven-race postseason. But his No. 9 Chevrolet battled transmission issues and he finished 33rd. Earnhardt said he wasn’t picking a favorite among his championship drivers.

“These guys work really well together,” Earnhardt said. “The crew chiefs all have a close relationship that goes beyond JR Motorsports. I think that’s why we’re so successful, because of the way they work together.”

Cup regular Kyle Larson was second at Chicagoland.

“I was too loose to keep pace,” Larson said.

The 42-year-old Sadler has finished second in the final standings three times over an Xfinity career that dates to 1995. He thought he had the car to beat headed into last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway until his crew chief was suspended for the race. Daniel Suarez would become NASCAR’s first Mexican champion.

“I felt like last year, my team was primed and ready to go,” Sadler said. “Then we lost our crew chief for Homestead and that made it a lot harder to try and be as competitive. I think the difference is to make sure we get through the playoff with no mistakes, no issues.”

Erik Jones started from the pole, led 94 laps and was in position to win the race until he was penalized for changing lanes before he reached the start-finish line with seven laps left in the race. Jones finished 18th.

Allgaier benefited in the No. 7 Chevrolet from Jones’ mistake and won at Chicagoland for the second time in his career.

“This one, the meaning of it is a lot greater,” Allgaier said. “When we got to the point where we took the white (flag), the emotion just flooded over me and it was just incredible.”

Allgaier’s parents, in-laws, cousins and other friends and family celebrated with him in the post-race party. But the moment was truly capped when his 4-year-old daughter was with him for the first time in victory lane.

“I hope she realizes at an older age just how special that moment is,” he said.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

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