Transcript from Earnhardt Jr.'s Interview on NASCAR Race Hub
Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed NASCAR fans a side of himself many may have never seen before Thursday night on NASCAR Race Hub in a lengthy sit-down interview with host Steve Byrnes. Earnhardt openly discussed a variety of topics that ranged from everything from his perspective on retirement and marriage to what irks him and how he thinks his Hendrick Motorsports team has performed this season.
Following is a transcript of the interview:
Byrnes: People want to know what Dale Jr. thinks or what he feels about a certain topic but when you’re interviewed, it’s almost like people trying to psycho-analyze you. Does it seem that way to you?
Earnhardt: “I guess so. I don’t stand on that side of the fence and see it that way because I feel pretty normal and I feel like I have normal conversations with people. I don’t really see the celebrity buzz. I don’t really realize my level of fame. I don’t categorize individuals like ‘This guy is famous. This guy is a hero.’ And I feel like when people start asking me questions and I want to do a sit-down or print interview, I get a little more guarded as the interview goes because I get nervous about being too open. You want to have some privacy and you don’t want to be a blabbermouth either and act like you’re just … if someone wants to know my opinion, I appreciate that, but I don’t feel that special. I just like going and driving my car and having fun racing.”
Byrnes: I don’t think it’s fair sometimes when an athlete is really passionate for everyone to think he loves the sport, as opposed to a guy who is quietly effective. Do you understand that?
Earnhardt: “Yeah, I get that and I think you would find that every driver in the sport is passionate. Some people are introverts and some people are outward about how they feel, kind of like Carl (Edwards). If he falls out of the race, he’ll go up in the (TV) booth and talk and have fun. Some guys react differently – they want to go home, they’re mad. I think I’m mostly an introvert when it comes to most things. Everybody has their days, I guess.”
Byrnes: You’re a fan of other sports. This is a question I’ve never asked a driver. Top-level athletes have a bad day. Do drivers ever have a bad day or do you ever not feel on top of your game?
Earnhardt: “I feel the same before every race. I’ve never went into a race where I thought,’ I don’t have it together today or my brain’s not put together right or whatever.’ But during the actual race itself, you’ll do things and then you’ll make a mistake or make another mistake and they kind of pile up and when the race is done, you look back and you go,’ Yeah, I made a lot of mistakes in that race, where the week before was smooth sailing.’ So, there’s days where you foul up a lot. I think concentration level in a race car is above any other sport. If you don’t really have it going for you that day, and you’re not really focused and not appreciating and respecting that, you’re going to have trouble.”
Byrnes: We think in terms of the car so often …
Earnhardt: “I don’t know if everybody is going to agree with this, but for the most part, the car is the key factor. If a guy’s not running well, in most cases, it’s the car. The crew chiefs or other people might say it’s more the driver. But for the most part, the deciding factor is the equipment you’re driving and whether it will go around the corner as good as the other guy’s car. The percentage of decent talented drivers is much larger than it used to be years ago, at least in my opinion. There’s more talented guys in the sport and guys that can win races than there’s ever been.”
Byrnes: On the Hub a couple of weeks ago, we showed a graphic of your finishes in the last five races. I got lit up on Twitter by people saying I stabbed you in the back. But I want you to make the Chase. It’s pretty amazing by how dedicated your fans are.
Earnhardt: “Oh yeah, and things like Twitter come around and give them a platform to speak from and they can be more vocal than they used to be years ago, so you kind of have to be careful where you step. Being a football fan going to football games, when I’ll sit there and see people that at face value, look out of control. But at the moment, everybody can get to that level. I think it’s healthy for the sport. Anything that fans can do, where they can plug into the sport, communicate with drivers, with you, with anyone involved is good for them. It makes them a part of it and that’s the way it needs to be.”
Byrnes: Your foundation does some really good things with Make-A-Wish and you have a promotion coming up.
Earnhardt: “I went to the plant in Canada where they build the Camaros. We were there to drive the first three off the line. Rick (Hendrick, owner) drove the first two off the line; I drove the third one off the line. Before the end of the day, I found out I’d bought the car. We do an auction and kind of a party concert thing every year in Charlotte to raise money for Make-A-Wish. We decided to give this Camaro to the auction and it’s windalejrsride.com and it ends September 1. Raffle tickets are $25 a piece. The reason I got involved with Make-A-Wish basically was because I was just following in my father’s footsteps. He was a big supporter.”
Byrnes: What stage of your career would you say you’re in? Some guys say they’re better than they’ve been. I’m curious how you see that.
Earnhardt: “I wonder sometimes if I could go back and know what I know now and drive in 1998. You’ll think about sometimes races you let slip away or races that got away from you and you’ll wonder whether with what you know now whether you could have gone back and done it better or done it differently. For example, I won the last … the last Nationwide Series championship we won we finished second in the last three races in a row and I would like to have one of them races. I think back to myself, ‘If I could go back, would I have been better or faster or was I driving well?’ I can’t even remember if I was a good driver back then or whether the car was carrying me or what. I feel like I’m about halfway into my career. I feel like I could go another 10 years. I think I really have to ask myself a lot of questions once I got to that age whether I was being productive or wasting anyone’s time or whether I was still having fun, all those things that pop up once you get older. But for the most part, I feel like I’m about halfway through.”
Byrnes: How about what stage of life you’re in?
Earnhardt: “There are things that make me think back on how I used to party all the time. I still like to party. I still like to get with my friends and try to pull an all-nighter. We can’t pull them like we used to. I still like to do that. I still get the bug to cut up and have fun. But I think back to five, 10 years ago, how we did it all the time, and I just can’t even imagine it. I haven’t changed my life a whole lot in the last eight years and I don’t want to change it that much. I like being … I have no real interest in being married. I’d like to have kids one day, but that’s not something I’ve got planned out. I feel like I know what my responsibilities are and I’ve got that sort of uniform and organized and I feel good with what I’m doing. As long as I’m racing under contract with an owner, I’m going to keep it the way it is right now. Once it changes and the world is different to me as far as whether I want to go race for myself or slip back into the Nationwide Series before I hang it up or whatever, I’ll change it up when I get there.”
Byrnes: Earlier in the season, people would say, “You’re back,” as if you had gone somewhere. But you were quick to say “I’m not buying into the hype.”
Earnhardt: “I just think that ideology of ‘I’m back’ or ‘This guy’s back’ is so hokey. You show up, you do a job, you either do it great that day or you don’t. And you just keep showing up. Some days I’m going to run well and some days I’m not. I think I know what my potential is. I know that they got to ask those questions, and they got to write the column, and they got to spin the story up. But if they don’t know what my potential is or have a good gauge what my potential is. I’ve been in it a long time. They should have a good idea of what they think I am as far as what caliber of race car driver.”
Byrnes: When you do post-race interviews, it seems like your message is, “We’re doing the best we can and I’m doing the best job I can.” In other words, “We’re controlling what we can.” That’s the way it looks.
Earnhardt: “That’s the way I feel it is. People want to ask if you feel like a win is around the corner or ‘do you think this is going to happen.’ You just don’t know. Maybe the answer is no. I don’t know. I show up at the race track and I try to do my job and I try to work well with the people around me and work as a team and try to make the car faster on Friday and try again on Saturday and hopefully on Sunday, it’s where it needs to be. You do that over and over. It’s real systematic. When you’ve worked in the series for as long as I’ve worked in it, it all gets repetitive and you get comfortable with that repetition. I’m confident I’m going to show up one day and we’re going to hit it one of these days and we’re going to win a race. I don’t know when it’s going to be. But I know I can do it. I’ve done it before. We’ve run well this year. Our performance is up from the last couple of years. We made some changes in the off-season that obviously have helped us.”
Byrnes: From your point of view, how much of the sport is confidence, or the mental part? Is it better this year than it has been the last two?
Earnhardt: “When you show up and you’re not confident or you don’t like the race track or it’s not one of your favorite places, the whole weekend sort of runs on that tone. You don’t really know until you get back looking at it afterwards. When you go into a place you’re excited about or looking forward to, the weekend sort of goes on that tone. Everybody working around you feeds off your emotions and if they think you’re upbeat, they’re upbeat. If you’re not in a good mood, you’re going to bring people around you down and the whole thing sort of crumbles and the result usually is not too good. Steve Letarte is perfect at it. I don’t know how he does it but he knows exactly how to set the tone for the day and his remarks throughout the day, if you really pay attention to it, he’ll put a little behind it to try to boost the guys, keep the guys’ morale up, keep them working hard. If something doesn’t go right, his tone doesn’t change. He stays positive and he stays, ‘Hey man, we’re going to get this sorted out. I know what happened there.’ Like everything’s under control even when maybe there might be some doubt. He’s really, really good at that.
(following a crash during a Daytona 500 practice session in February that forced him to a backup car):
“I was as sick as I could be because I knew that car was really fast. We had talked about it and knew the cars in the trailer weren’t that good that we would have to race. That was my first impression of the new team I was working with, this new group of guys, and I imagined if I was one of them, I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘Man, it’s going to be a long year.’ He knows how to say what needs to be said at that moment to keep people together and keep whatever momentum we have going.”
Byrnes: What will make this season successful in your mind or is it already?
Earnhardt: “We’ve improved. If we don’t win a race, we’re going to be disappointed. If we don’t make the Chase, we’re really going to be disappointed. I think we’re a good enough team and fast enough to make the Chase and there’s no reason we shouldn’t make it. I can think back over the year and count every point that I gave up as a driver and it bugs me. I think we’re a better team than ninth in points. Like I said, if we don’t win a race, it will be pretty disappointing coming as close as we have. We’ve pretty much had top-15 cars every week and 75-percent of those weeks, we had top-10 cars. We’ve been pretty good this year and I’ve been pretty happy with that.”