SONOMA, Calif. -- This weekend marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final visit to Sonoma Raceway as a NASCAR Cup Series competitor.
But thanks to a special gift from the track, Earnhardt's impact in the area won't stop with Sunday's race.
Friday afternoon, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager Steve Page presented the driver with three puppies -- Dale, Junior and Amy.
But Earnhardt won't be taking the Labrador Retrivers home. Rather, the trio is part of the Paws as Loving Support (PALS) Assistance Dogs program. They will be raised and trained to help children with disabilities at home and in the community.
"It warms my heart," Earnhardt said. "We do love dogs and love making a difference in kids’ lives and this is a twofer. Pretty neat deal."
As part of their training, the PALS puppies will spend time with incarcerated youth twice a week before eventually being matched with a child with a disability and his or her family as a service dog -- or plcaed with a professional as a facility dog.
"Amy is going to love this idea and she is going to be a little sad she wasn’t here to see the dogs today, but it’s nice to know that these types of things are happening and you guys are making a difference in people’s lives," Earnhardt said. "We really appreciate that and obviously thank the track for their investment to make this happen."
The track also presented Earnhardt with a custom-engraved six-liter wine bottle, and 10,000 fans in attendance on Sunday will receive "Thanks, Junior" hand-held fans. In addition, the Patriots Jet Team will write the No. 88 in the sky during pre-race ceremonies.
The fact that the puppies were a gift that could help the community meant that much more to the driver of the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet SS.
"Our whole idea on finishing up the season is to try to show our appreciation and sort of express that to our fans and everyone in the industry on making this an incredibly enjoyable ride," he said. "This fits right into that."
"Excited to maybe come back and see how the dogs are doing. It would be a lot of fun to do that."