Dale Earnhardt Jr. will do double duty at Richmond: as a driver and analyst
By SCOTT ALLEN | The Washington Post | Published: September 20, 2018
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is mixing business with pleasure this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The NASCAR driver-turned-NBC Sports analyst will race for the first time since retiring at the end of last season in Friday's Xfinity Series race, and then don a headset in the booth for the call of Saturday's Cup Series event.
The 43-year-old Earnhardt, who last raced 10 months ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway, has two goals for the driving portion of his weekend: have fun and complete all the laps.
"I'm tempering my expectations as far as the performance goes and just trying to make sure that I enjoy it," Earnhardt said in a phone interview this week. "You race all your life and it's real easy to get wrapped up in being competitive and wanting to win and being fast every single lap. You sap a little bit of the enjoyment out of it because you put so much pressure on yourself to excel. I'm not going to do that at this age and this point in my life, but we're going to have fun."
When Earnhardt announced his retirement from racing in April 2017, he still had a contract with Hellmann's to drive one race in 2018. He chose Richmond because he likes its short track and had success there during his career. Earnhardt doesn't have any firm plans to race again after Friday, but he's open to doing so if it helps support the four full-time drivers for his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series team. The terms of the deal for Friday's race, Earnhardt said, call for Unilever, which owns Hellmann's, to sponsor JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier's car for eight races with various brands in the company's portfolio.
"It's about a 90 percent chance that I'll run another race next year," Earnhardt said. "It's probably a 90 percent chance that it'll only be one event in the entire season. ... With the challenges we have to fill out sponsorships and have every race for each of those cars sponsored for the entire season, this helps. This is a way for us to leverage me driving the car against getting those other cars fully sponsored. I'm not actively looking for races to run or trying to put together one-race deals. I'd like to put together a deal where I run a race and they sponsor 10 more races on the other cars so we get them filled out. That makes it worth it for me to do it. Not only am I going to have a little fun driving the car, but I'm helping our company, and it helps our bottom line."
Earnhardt has made a smooth transition to his analyst role, which began with contributions to NBC's coverage of Super Bowl LII and the Winter Olympics. In addition to providing commentary on NBC's NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series race coverage, Earnhardt is a regular on NBC Sports Network's daily program "NASCAR America." During Friday's race, he will serve as an in-car analyst and offer updates during cautions, a new wrinkle NBC Sports debuted last month with Brendan Gaughan at Mid-Ohio.
Being on the other side of the microphone has helped Earnhardt mellow, even though he says he's busier these days than he ever was as a driver.
"I really didn't understand exactly how much pressure I was under driving race cars until I quit," Earnhardt said. "I think it's helped my personality and disposition. I'm just in a better mood, I'm easier to be around. I'm not as grumpy and short and ill-tempered. Trying to be competitive in racing and NASCAR, it's very challenging and cutthroat. It's very intense and very frustrating at times. More often than not it's frustrating. I kind of had let that become my normal. Now that I'm out of the car and I don't have that pressure and I don't put that pressure on me personally, oh man is life a whole lot easier."
Earnhardt was named NASCAR's most popular driver 15 consecutive years, but he dreaded making appearances or doing much of anything outside of his car. As an analyst, he looks forward to recording his podcast, "The Dale Jr. Download," which this week included a lengthy description of one of his favorite sandwiches: ham, Doritos, mayonnaise and pickles. Two weeks before the last time he raced at Richmond, in April 2016, Earnhardt set off a social media firestorm when he tweeted a photo of another one of his favorite meals.
"I sent out the mayonnaise and banana tweet and it went viral and I couldn't believe it went viral," Earnhardt said. "People either loved it or hated it, and boy, the haters were so animated."
In response to the tweet's popularity, Earnhardt launched a fundraising drive to benefit Blessings in a Backpack that raised more than $160,000 in two weeks. To top it all off, Earnhardt won the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond while driving a Hellmann's branded car.
Earnhardt didn't miss racing in the first few months after his retirement, but he said a recent two-hour practice session in sweltering conditions at Hickory Motor Speedway "felt amazing" and made him "more excited about getting in the car" for Friday's race. Beyond that, who knows?
"I didn't know if I'd miss racing so badly that I had a heartache and physical illness over not being in the car," Earnhardt said. "But it's not been like that at all. It's been quite nice and I certainly don't miss the grind that you have to put yourself into. There's some highs, man, but there are so many lows. You can run second, third, fourth, fifth and be so damn disappointed. It didn't make any sense."