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It’s a Junior moment

Earnhardt Jr. talks about his legacy, losing streak and fighting

Friday, May. 18, 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 37, but he doesn’t look it. He’ll never look his age. There’s a quality about him that’s perpetually young.

Newly clean-shaven, he sits in his hauler in the Charlotte Motor Speedway garage Friday afternoon, fire suit pulled down to his waist, revealing an orange T-shirt. In his mouth is a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and it’s not a miniature. If, between bites, he says, “Dude,” the word will sound authentic.

Before walking to the 88 hauler I run into Ray Evernham, one of the great minds in racing. I ask what I should ask Earnhardt. He suggests I ask what he wants his legacy to be.

“My legacy?” Earnhardt asks. “What are my choices?”

He pauses five seconds, 10, 15.

EARNHARDT: “I think I want people to think that I was a really good guy and a lot of fun. You know you’re always trying to work on being a better race car driver, but you’re always working on being a better person – fun to work with, fun to be around, team player, willing to do whatever you’re asked to do.”

QUESTION: When was the last time you used your name to get something the rest of us can’t?

EARNHARDT: “I guess when you’re in Vegas and you’re at a club, to get a table. I kind of like to play roulette but I like to play by myself or with friends and sometimes get a table by ourselves.

“I wanted to bring my Airstream, my 20-foot Airstream, down there (to a Charlotte Motor Speedway lot some call the Big Money Lot) next to all the buses. I used my name to get me a spot in the heavy duty lot with all the big names, the superstars. You know, like Jeff Gordon. I got (the Airstream) a couple months ago because I like going to camp and going to the mountains out west in N.C. and sit around a creek for a couple days. So I had to call (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and say, ‘Hey man, can I get my camper in there?’ He said, ‘Yeah I’ll help you out.’ So I used my name.”

The lot is full of 40-plus foot luxury coaches that cost more than your house. And there’s the shiny little Airstream. Next to the adult, fully grown coaches it looks like a mascot. You almost want to pet it.

QUESTION: When I say Kurt Busch, what do you think?

EARNHARDT: “Sharpie. Him driving a Sharpie car for a long time. I thought it was a cool sponsor.”

BETTER QUESTION: When I say Kurt Busch at Darlington, what do you think?

EARNHARDT: What happened? I haven’t seen any of the video, haven’t heard anything about what happened. He said he was taking his helmet off, he made a mistake and ran into the car. I don’t have anybody in that fight.”

QUESTION: Do you ever go out and not get recognized?

EARNHARDT: “There’s a lot of places where people don’t know who you are. Just the other week we were in New Hampshire testing and went out to eat some food and drink some Diet Mountain Dews and the people in there were like, ‘Man, you look like Dale Earnhardt Jr.’ I said, ‘All right.’ You look like somebody. They don’t always peg you.”

QUESTION: How about in Charlotte?

EARNHARDT: “They tend to be used to it. So when I go out in Mooresville nothing happens. They just come by your table and say you’re been running good, keep it up, and I love that. That makes you feel so good.”

QUESTION: Your nephew, Jeffrey (son of Kerry Earnhardt) will make his amateur mixed martial arts debut Tuesday in a card at Coyote Joe’s. If the Sprint Cup drivers hold their own mixed martial arts tournament, who wins?

EARNHARDT: “Carl Edwards is pretty into working out. So is Mark Martin, and he’s small so he’d be hard to keep up with. Tony (Stewart) probably would be pretty physical, he’s a big guy. I don’t know. That’d be fun to be part of. I like to fight. I like, not in a mean-spirited way, to box and stuff. It’d be good competition. It’d be fun.”

Earnhardt has run 140 straight points races without a victory.

QUESTION: How will you react when you win?

EARNHARDT: “It’d be hard not to party too hard.

QUESTION: Do you think about how it will feel?

EARNHARDT: “I think about it some because we’re kind of getting close (third in the Sprint Cup points, 14 points out of the lead). I think about what could help us win, what I could do or whatever it is about my car. You just think about what might be missing.

“The best part about (winning) is getting in Victory Lane and seeing your crew. You sit there and you watch them work their…off for months at a time. That’s sort of the payoff for me. To see the guys happy, to see family happy, to see friends happy, to see the owner happy, that’s the payoff. That’s what I enjoy the most.

“That would sort of justify all the hard work and all these races and travel. And we don’t make a lot of sacrifices. To be honest with you, it’s a pretty fun life, fun job. But there’s a lot of days when you beat yourself up. You don’t run like you want to or you have a bad race and you beat the hell out of yourself all weekend, all week.

QUESTION: What about winning a championship?

EARNHARDT: “To be a champion really puts a mark on you, puts you in an elite group, puts you in very good company. A lot of times races are won and lost by the best drivers and the fastest cars, and often by circumstances and strategy and fuel mileage. (But) champions are true champions. You didn’t make it on fuel mileage.”


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