NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his father, his career, his affinity for big bucks, and why not driving is NOT an option.
STORY BY BARRY WISE SMITH
“I don’t ever want to stop racing, and I don’t ever want to quit driving,” says NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. without equivocation. “In a perfect world, I’d drive a racecar for many years to come.”
If anyone thought that his 2017 semi-retirement would take Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the driver’s seat, allow him to shatter that illusion. “I miss it; I love it; I want to keep doing it.” Now husband to Amy and father to two little girls, Earnhardt Jr. may not drive full time any more, but he has no intentions of leaving the sport he loves. “I’m particular about what tracks I race, and I have to have good control over my situation and my chances of safety and success,” he. says. “But I will keep doing it as long as it makes good sense.”
BUILDING A LEGEND
For the scion of one of NASCAR’s most notable families—he is namesake of arguably the best driver in NASCAR history Dale Earnhardt Sr., and his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt was the 1956 NASCAR Sportsman champion— Earnhardt Jr. did not always think his future would include driving a racecar.
“My family built wagons back in the 1800s and has always done something with wheels and automobiles and transportation,” he says with pride. “Racing was on both sides of my family. My dad raced, my grandfather raced, and on my mom’s side, they were mechanics and bodymen and worked on the cars. I knew somehow, some way I’d be involved in the sport, but I didn’t think driving was going to be how I made my living. I knew that only a few people got to do that, and I’d be fooling myself if I thought that it would be guaranteed for me.”
After receiving his Associate’s degree in automotive technology, Earnhardt Jr. went to work as a service mechanic at his father’s car dealership. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie amongst the guys and girls who worked in the service department, going to Christmas company dinners, and just living this really normal life. It was very rewarding for me.”
All the while though, he was racing on weekends but not finding the success he hoped for. “I put a lot into it, and thought about it a lot, but it wasn’t something that was very successful for me early on,” he remembers. “I thought I needed to be doing better and having more success to get better opportunities and climb the ladder.”
Eventually he started to improve and find moderate success. “Then it was like a light came on for me,” he recalls. “I went from making $350 a week to winning races on the NASCAR circuit to winning championships, and life took off.”
Once success came, it came fast and furious. Earnhardt Jr. started driving the Number 8 car for his father’s DEI team and won back-to-back Xfinity championships in 1998 and 1999. “When I started racing in my dad’s car in the Xfinity Series in 1998, we spent so much time together—I was on his plane every week going to the racetrack,” he remembers. “He started to get more plugged in with me and more interested in what was going on with me. He got more vocal about what I needed to be doing and how I needed to go forward. But at that point, I don’t think he really knew what I was like as a driver or what I was capable of or what talent I had. So to win twice in his car was so fun. To stand next to him and demand his approval and get it was huge for me. For sons and fathers, you can’t get enough approval from your dad, and you do all you can to get that approval. I knew there was no way he couldn’t pat me on that back for that and look at me and say ‘I’m proud of you’. It was so nice to hear him say those words.” In 2000, in his rookie NASCAR season, Earnhardt Jr. won the All-Star race with his father in attendance. “That was cool because Dad was there. He got to enjoy victory lane and celebrate with me.”
Earnhardt Jr. went on to amass 26 career victories—including two Daytona 500 wins—qualify for the NASCAR playoffs eight times, stand as the only third-generation NASCAR champion, and be selected by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver an unprecedented 15 consecutive years (2003-17). “All the wins were pretty cool. I was never one to go into a race thinking I was going to win. I never assumed anything,” Earnhardt Jr. says.
After Earnhardt Jr. partially retired in 2017, he went to work as a NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports. He also founded and manages his JR Motorsports team, which fields four full-time entries in the Xfinity Series; hosts a popular podcast called The Dale Jr. Download; opened Whisky River, a bar and nightclub with two locations in Charlotte, North Carolina; and founded Dirty Mo Media. Needless to say, he’s not bored. And realizing he missed driving, he decided he’d drive at least one race a year, most recently in Miami in June 2020.
Being an owner is different than driving he says, and he would like to see one of his JR Motorsports cars compete at Daytona. “I would love to field a car as an owner in the Daytona 500,” he says. “It’s the biggest race of the year, and I’ve won it a couple of times as a driver, but I’d love to go there and experience that race as the owner of a car. Just to go there and enter a car and go through the emotional roller coaster of trying to qualify for the event would be such a challenge and so fun. That’s something I’d want to experience one time in my life. I’ve had the emotional experience of that race as a driver but as an owner I think it would be another unique experience to have.”
Earnhardt Jr. will join his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the 2021 class selected last June (the induction ceremony scheduled for February was postponed to early 2022 due to the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic). “Being chosen for the Hall of Fame hasn’t set in yet,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I was floored to be chosen or even considered. Just to be on the list of the 25 nominees was good enough. It’s going to be an honor to see my name alongside all of those other legends.”
And in 2007 with a need to help his community, Earnhardt Jr. launched The Dale Jr. Foundation, a charity dedicated to working with and helping underserved populations. “We work with about 80 different charities to provide support for local kids,” he says. “We focus mainly on youth through education, and it’s been a lot of fun. We want to make an impact in our community.”
DRIVING OUTSIDE THE LINES
One of the many things Earnhardt Jr. shared with his father was a love for the outdoors. “When deer season started every year and until it ended, my dad was on his own agenda,” Earnhardt Jr. says of his dad. “I used to beg dad to go on his hunting trips. I went on a few, and they’re incredible memories for me. When you’d go to the racetrack with my dad, you weren’t going to get any of his attention. He was thinking about racecars, and winning, and doing his job. But when we were hunting, he was open with me. He wanted to talk and teach and help you understand why you were doing what you were doing.”
But when his father died, so did Earnhardt Jr.’s love for the pastime they had shared. “I fell out of love with hunting after he passed away, he says. “But in the past 10 years, I’ve gotten back into it. I picked up a bow and started bow hunting. I’ve gun hunted a few times, but I really enjoy bow hunting.”
Earnhardt Jr. bought hunting land with a group of friends and has thrown himself full tilt into tending to his property—an homage to his father. “My dad was a blue-collar guy,” he says, “He got up every day at 4 a.m., went to bed at 9 p.m., worked all day long. When he wasn’t driving, he was farming all day and stacking hay. He kept himself busy working, cutting roads with his bulldozer, working his land, shaping it. If he wasn’t inside his racecar, he was working on his land.”
“Now I have my own place to hunt where we make all the decisions and have control of the food plots and where we hang the stands,” he says. “Learning how to manage the herd and understanding land management has been a lot of fun. It’s taught me a lot about the outdoors that I didn’t know. I love it, and when I don’t get to go, I miss it. I think my passion for it has grown each year.”
Now the father of two little girls, Earnhardt Jr. plans to teach them about the outdoors like his father did him. “I daydream about taking my girls hunting and teaching them how to hunt,” he says. “When they’re old enough, I’m going to take them with me at least once so I can show them what I love about it. We’re going to go camping and dig in creeks and play in the mud.”
When asked about his most memorable hunts, he mentions an elk hunt in Montana (“To see that part of the country was amazing.”), but he immediately comes back home. “My best and most memorable hunt was this past year on the land that I own,” Earnhardt Jr. recalls. “There’s something about hunting on your own land that you’ve worked hard to get and that you’ve shaped. I was in the woods, sitting in a tree stand, looking out over a field, when I spotted a buck through the trees. He started toward me then turned and started walking down the tree line away from me. I had zero experience using a call of any kind, but when he started to walk away, I grabbed my grunt and grunted. He turned and looked at me and then started running back toward me. I was up and ready when he broke the wood line, and I fired my arrow. Then I had to track him through the woods, and I finally found him. That experience of grunting him in on my own land was amazing.”
In 2015, through Earnhardt Jr.’s friendship with Bass Pro owner Johnny Morris, he entered into a partnership with TrueTimber Camo. “I have been friends with Johnny for a long time. He and my dad were also great friends,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “Johnny was partnering with TrueTimber and owner Rusty Sellars to create his own camo brand, and they asked if I would be the face of their product. I told them yes, but I didn’t just want to be a face but an equity partner in the brand.” The partnership not only proved a lucrative investment but also got Earnhardt Jr. interested in hunting and the outdoors again. “I knew that there was a passion in me that was untapped,” he says. “It was in my dad, and I enjoyed that about him, and I enjoyed doing that with him, and this was going to push me back into the woods. It was going to get me back where I knew I needed to be. My relationship with TrueTimber was the spark that reignited my passion for hunting.”
THE BUCKET LIST
So what else is left for Dale Jr. to achieve? “In driving, there’s not really anything left for me to do that I haven’t done,” he says. So he turns his attention again to the outdoors and his girls. “I would love to shoot a drop tine buck—I’d love to shoot a monster like that. I got a big one in Texas, but I’d like to shoot something bigger on my own property. And I’d love to take my daughters hunting.”