Has the weight been lifted off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s shoulders?

Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway offers Dale Earnhardt Jr. something he perhaps has never been able to enjoy in his racing career.

That’s an opportunity to compete with absolutely no pressure whatsoever.

With his decision to retire at season’s end as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver made public earlier this week, Earnhardt will compete in Sunday’s race without having to consider anything beyond what gets him to the checkered flag.

On any given week there are future considerations at play, whether it be from sponsors, performance, contract extensions and playoff eligibility, just to name a few.

“The fans still want you to do as well as you can, so we’re going to have expectations as per usual. The team, the guys and myself, we’d love to win some races. To go to Victory Lane one more time, would be awesome,” Earnhardt said Friday.

“I certainly do feel a lot more relaxed now but I don’t know if that is because I finally got to tell everybody and let everybody know what we’re doing, getting that over with. But I certainly felt real relaxed today in the garage.

“I felt like there was less pressure from somewhere – and a large amount. It was a lot different.”

A different feeling

Earnhardt was 14th-fastest in Friday’s lone Cup series practice and felt he and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team had a productive session.

“That freedom of thought and freedom from the stress helped us get through a good practice and we found some speed,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know if we will be that fortunate in every practice and every race.”

Earnhardt said he has been thinking his situation this season may be comparable to the one in 2014, when his former crew chief, Steve Letarte, had decided he would take a job with NBC Sports Network at season’s end.

“He called that whole season completely different. He was more aggressive and I think it was because he had the freedom to be that way,” Earnhardt said of Letarte. “He was like, ‘What if it don’t work?’ A lot of times it ended up working out.

“I won both of those Pocono races on pit calls that he made. We didn’t just out-run everybody. There were things he did in the middle of the race that we might not have done he had not had his mind made up with what he was doing and instead said, ‘This is my last hoorah, we’re just going to go for it.’

“I noticed that whole year he was much more easy-going, approachable – he’s pretty damn likeable – but he was much more likable and easy to be around then. He let everything roll of his back.”

Earnhardt says he is anticipating a similar feeling.

“Usually when we start practice and the car is tight in the center, the tone of the conversation about the car is completely different,” he said. “But having been able to make that announcement, and let my guys know, I’m not going to get so spun out if something’s just not perfect on the car or the cars a little slow.

“I guess I won’t be as panicky about it and the frustration won’t jump in there as quickly as it usually does.”