Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this year with a new set of 12 questions. First up: 2004 Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Q: What do you think about during a long green-flag run? Are you concentrating on driving or do you get in a zone and not think about anything?
A: That’s when you can start sort of doing the math in your head about fuel mileage and what tire strategy people are on and how other people’s races are going. You can start thinking about your competition.
Like if I’m coming out of (Turn) 2 at Charlotte, I’ll watch guys coming out of (Turn) 4, and I can tell whether I’m catching them or not. Every time you come out of the corner, you look where they are and see if you’re getting closer.
You do all kinds of things, because even when you’re out there alone, you’re still competitive and your competitive nature drums up mini-games, I guess you could call them. They’re mental activities to keep yourself on task and focused.
But when you’re not running well and you’ve wrecked or something, you’re just out there making laps and you think about everything. You think about the house, about what you did yesterday, what you’re going to do tomorrow. You think about everything but what you’re doing, because driving around in a tore-up car is no fun at all.
Q: When fans come up to you and mention a moment or a race from your career, which one comes up the most?
A: Probably the Daytona 500 win (in 2004). That was probably the most attended race I’ve won, so you hear people tell you they were there when you won. But that doesn’t really happen that often. I can’t remember the last time somebody has reminded me they were there when I won Bristol or Dover or Phoenix or things like that.
Q: If someone paid you $5 million to design a new track somewhere, what kind of track would you make and what elements would it have?
A: I’d do an asphalt Bristol (Motor Speedway) – the original asphalt layout. And I’d put it somewhere around the New York City area.
We’ve always wanted to have a track around New York City, and to take an asphalt Bristol – a real tight bullring with a lot of action and beating and banging – there’s enough people in that region to sell the tickets. I love short tracks and I feel like we could use a couple more on the circuit.
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You could take a risk and go out to L.A. and see if that style of racing would appeal to people – because obviously, we’re not hitting home runs with what we’ve brought to them so far (at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.). But I don’t know if that would catch on there, even though that’s probably our most popular type of racing.
I think the thing you could take to California is a 2.5-mile superspeedway like Talladega or Daytona. That’s probably the only thing that’s really going to attract those people. Because they seem to like the IndyCars, and that’s the closest thing we’ve got to it.
Q: If you had one day off to do anything in the world – but you couldn’t race – what would you do?
A: I’ll tell you one thing I really enjoyed – and this is kind of corny – but Beers Around The World at Disney World (Epcot Center). I’d really love to do that. One day at Epcot (sampling beers in each "country"), that’s a lot of fun.
We went from country to country (on a December trip) and we were about three-quarters of the way through, but we had a dinner reservation that we had to meet my sister (Kelley Earnhardt Miller) and her husband L.W. (Miller) and her kids for. So we had to stop and didn’t get to finish it.
But that was just a lot of fun. You just take your time. When you’re in "Germany," it’s big enough you can almost lose yourself in that moment like you’re actually there. They do such an amazing job with the architecture and really giving you that sense that you’re in that moment, you know? I really enjoyed that, and it’s perfect for one day. Logistically, you can’t go to Hawaii and enjoy yourself for a day – but you could do Beers Around The World for a day and enjoy it.
Q: What’s a really cool non-racing experience you’ve gotten to do because you’re a race car driver?
A: I enjoy going to the MTV Music Awards and the Country Music Awards, but not going on them. That’s just terrifying.
But once you’re done with your stage part, it’s like the best concert in the world. When we were at the Country Music Awards, I was on stage with Julianne Hough. The stage part is just frightening and nothing about it is fun at all. You just want to get through it.
But when you sit down and you really think about it, you’re seeing some of the greatest artists of that time and doing their best work – and they’re there to impress, you know? They’re going to give it everything they’ve got.
I was amazed at hearing some of the songs. You hear them being played on the radio all the time, but hearing them in that arena – just the sound, it was perfect. I remember thinking, "Where else are you going to see all the best artists in one spot and listen to all the best songs?" So that was kind of overwhelming and I really enjoyed that.
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Q: When you have a bad day on the track and you go home, who do you talk to about it? Or do you just keep the frustration to yourself?
A: Amy (Reimann, Earnhardt’s longtime girlfriend) and me talk a little bit, but the person I need to talk to about it is Steve (Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief). The person I need to get over it the best with is Steve because we’re in that battle together and I want to hear about what he thinks we’re going to do to fix it, and I want to hear things that are going to make me feel better about fixing it.
Amy has got to hear it because she’s the only one around (Amy, standing nearby, smiles and nods knowingly). And if I’ve just got Amy to talk to, I get through it in a couple days.
But really, the person who gets me back fired up and able to put that out of my mind quickest is Steve. It helps understanding the mechanics of why we ran bad, how we’re going to fix it and what we’re going to do in the future to not let that happen again. Because he can really give me the nuts and bolts to get my mind straightened out and go to the next race.
Otherwise, I’ll just drag it out. It’s miserable. That’s the worst part of the job, is when you don’t run good. You cannot get over it. You can’t shake it for days. It sucks.
Q: When you have a kid someday and he or she is running around the garage area, what driver would you point to as a good role model?
A: It used to be guys like Dale Jarrett or Bobby Labonte. But in the group we’ve got today, like if I were talking to Austin Dillon about somebody who handles themselves the right way and how to keep your (stuff) together and keep your head on straight, I would say Jimmie (Johnson) is sort of the standard. When it comes to winning, when it comes to managing his head and keeping his emotions in check, he won’t ever stick his foot in his mouth with the media, with his fans, on social media. He’s just the standard.
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Jeff (Gordon) is pretty solid and Kasey (Kahne) is pretty solid, too. My teammates are really guys who never really ruffle feathers or say anything they might regret or do anything they wish they hadn’t done. There’s a lot of guys out there, though, who I have a lot of respect for based on how they handle themselves and manage crisis situations.
Q: When drivers are standing around shooting the bull and telling racing stories, what is one of your favorite stories you like to tell or have heard told about someone else?
A: My favorite story is a trip I took with Kenny Schrader when I was 15 years old out to the Midwest. He was going to race for a week and he asked my father if he could take me with him – I don’t know why. The trip was going to culminate with an ARCA Series race in Topeka (Kan.) and my dad was going to run in it. The plan was for me to go with Kenny to all these dirt races, fly around in his little King Air and drive to a couple races in the hauler. He’d run every night at all these little Podunk tracks and then we’d end up in Topeka. Dad was going to show up on race day and start in the back without any practice, then I’d go home with Dad.
That was just a really wild trip, just being with Kenny and going through that whole experience with him. He was a pretty colorful guy for a 15-year-old kid like me who was really impressionable. I felt just pumped to go along, you know? Hell, when it snowed outside and Daddy wanted to take his truck out with his buddies and mess around in the snow, I’d barely get on that trip – much less a week with Kenny Schrader out in the Midwest. It was pretty neat to be able to go and get invited.
Kenny tells the story all the time. I ended up in Topeka with Dad – and me and Kenny both got in a lot of trouble (for excessive partying). Dad was pretty upset.
Q: What is a TV show you’re really into right now?
A: (Looks at Amy, who says, "We watch a lot of my shows.") We watch a ton of shows Amy likes to watch. We do watch a lot of cooking shows. I guess my favorite show is BBQ Pitmasters. I could watch that all day! (Grins like a kid.) Just trying to learn how to do that as good as some of those guys do it.
It’s a fun activity. My favorite thing to do … is to get my big trailer grill and smoke some meat and sit around with my buddies all day for 12 hours cooking that, and then eat at the end of the day. It’s just real relaxing and something you can drink beer with and have some fun.
It’s like tinkering with a car and getting a car ready to go race, trying to smoke meat for that long. It’s a lot of prep work and there are a lot of steps to it. I kind of enjoy the buildup to it more than actually eating it. I enjoy watching everyone else actually eat it. Putting it together is like getting an old Late Model together to go race at Myrtle Beach with your buddies.
So watching that show, I try to learn as much as I can.
Q: What’s the last movie you saw – either in the theater or on TV – and how was it?
A: We just rented the Robert Redford movie All Is Lost.
Was that good?
Yeah. Castaway is my favorite movie, and any time I read about a castaway or a story like that, it just interests me a lot. Like that recent guy who floated from Mexico all the way to the Marshall Islands. That (stuff) is incredible. And basically that’s what All Is Lost is about.
Also, the challenge of making that movie must have been huge. It’s just Robert on a boat! There are no other actors, and there’s hardly any dialogue. It just must have been real challenging to shoot that movie and create that movie with the boat and him and nothing else. It just was fun to watch.
I use my notes app on my iPhone religiously, and I have one note just for movies. Every time I see a movie I think I’m going to want to watch, I’ll put it in there. That was one of them.
Q: If you could give the younger version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: I worried too much. I used to have stomach ulcers and stuff when I was in the 10th grade. I’d be doubled over on the floor, I was hurting so bad. I was on Tagamet before it was over the counter.
I was just worried too damn much about making it in racing. It just seemed like it was miles away – unreachable, this opportunity. I just worried about it way too much and didn’t enjoy what I was doing then – high school, my friends.
Then when I started racing Late Models, I didn’t enjoy that as much as I should have, either. I had it made, you know?
So I’d probably tell myself not to worry so much and to enjoy each little chapter in your life. I still worry too much now, but not as much as I did then. I was a mess then.
Q: I’ve been asking each driver to give me a question for the next interview. The last interview – at the end of 2013 – was Landon Cassill. He wanted to know: "What is something a driver does off the track that annoys you?"
A: I guess style – like sunglasses and shoes people wear. I probably annoy people too with what I wear sometimes. But sometimes the style a guy has …
Amy: He’s trying too hard.
Dale: Yeah! We’re like, "What in the hell is that guy wearing?" (Laughs) The way they dress. It’s all individual opinion on what you think is cool. I try not to get too crazy, but some people, man. Some of the sunglasses and shoes they wear. We pick on everybody we know about their clothes. Like (Hendrick Motorsports account executive) Jake Backer, he wears tight slacks all the time. Tight slacks – that’s like an oxymoron!
Q: And do you have a question for the next interview? It’s scheduled to be Joey Logano.
A: He’s engaged, right? Well I want to know if he cried when he proposed. Did he shed a tear when he asked her and she said yes? Did he have one tear on the cheek? (Laughs)