Earnhardt also learned a lot from fellow driver Bubba Wallace, who he told Men’s Health taught him how to hone his mental energies before a race. “It becomes instinct. The car demands it. We’re going so fast, it’s dangerous, and you don’t know what moves a guy’s going to make next. You hit the track and the risk of spinning out and damaging the car puts a lot of responsibility on you, so you have to be plugged in from the minute you mash the gas.”
When you’re driving 200+ mph, the support of your fellow drivers is crucial. The new crop of drivers and the old crop all respect Earnhardt Jr. for the most part. His reputation in the racing community is second to none and with good reason. He has never spoken out of pocket and he always sticks to the racing.
Jeff Gordon took the young Earnhardt Jr. under his wing after his father had passed away and the two formed a friendship ever since. They had a sort of sibling rivalry on the track but would meet for dinner later that night. He explained to Men’s Health what makes a great driver “The best drivers think about it all day and stay in constant communication with their team about how to get better. Out on the track, you can spot a guy who’s smart about decisions and one who makes the same mistakes over and over.”
“Look at three to four years of races and you’ll see the same guys getting themselvesâor someone elseâinto trouble. I think it’s about how you’re raisedâyour values and morals help you make split decisions. Everybody who comes into NASCAR is going to be rough around the edges at the start. They’re going to tear up some cars. But if they don’t grow out of that quickly, they’ll lose a lot of respect in the industry.”
Perhaps one of the best parts of watching NASCAR during the early 2000s was the rivalry between Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. He told Men’s Health that the two would psyche each other out before a race. “Do I dislike Stewart? Not really. There’s never a mano-a-mano moment when one guy tries to con another. You run to the physical grip of the tire in the car all the time. That’s how you run the quickest lap you can run. You just try to get around him as fast as possible, while he does everything he can to keep from wrecking the car underneath him”.
Rivalries make the sport a lot better, and then as the drivers get older, a healthy friendship forms. Both of these drivers were some of the biggest marquees for NASCAR during this era. With a fair amount of crossover appeal, they were able to bring new fans into the sport.
We all remember Stewart’s love for the camera, and he got Earnhardt Jr. in on the action too. The two starred in a Three Doors Down music video and various advertisements, as he explained to Men’s Health“There’s a cool story about that ad. I’ve always loved dogs. When I was little I had an Irish setter. I had a boxer, Killer, for about 11 years. Now I have another Irish setter, Gus, and we’ve got four buffalo out in the pasture. I’ve been with Nationwide Insurance ever since I got my driver’s license.
“And pet insurance is a no-brainer. In the commercial script, I was supposed to get my dogs to speak on cueâbut they’re not trained, so it wouldn’t work. We rewrote it on the spot so they could do whatever they wantedâwhich is what they always do! Our fans love seeing the dogs and the buffalo, especially when they take tours around the shop. I think at one point, Killer was selling more T-shirts than I was.”
In a NASCAR race, there are so many cars on the track at once that you know someone is feeling left out after a loss. Earnhardt explained to Men’s Health that Stewart was always one of the first drivers to congratulate him “Winning the Daytona 500 in ’04 and ’14. That was just a crazy, crazy feeling. Stewart was the first person to come over and congratulate me. When you win that race and you go to Victory Lane and everybody’s there. Your team, your family, everybody’s calling on the phone. The whole world is watching. Winning the All-Star race as a rookie was incredible.
“We were a rookie team in this All-Star race. I don’t think we, even in our wildest dreams, imagined that we were going to win the event. And the Xfinity Series in ’98 and ’99. That was an incredible feeling of accomplishment for me. I was just starting as a racer. The sky was the limit for me at that moment. My father [who died at Daytona in ’01] was still alive, so enjoying that with him was amazing.”
Perhaps the greatest thing about Earnhardt Jr. is the fact that he’s been able to pick up on where his dad left off. He told Men’s Health about the impact that his father has on younger drivers including Jeff Gordon. “He didn’t give you a lot of time and didn’t sit down with you all that much. There were nights when we would sit in the living room and he would be in the La-Z-Boy watching TV, and you couldn’t get him to answer a question. He wasn’t a talker. When he did talk to you, you listened. But once, he sat me down and talked to me about drugs and school. I guess all fathers probably have this conversation.
“Maybe mothers, too. He quit school in eighth grade. He had already failed a couple of grades. He was 16 years old and quit racing cars or working on cars, and his father was so disappointed. That’s why my father would always remind us of how important it was for usâand himâthat we finish school. And I’m so grateful now for that. He was always really concerned that we might fall into the wrong crowd and get mixed up in drugs and things like that. We had short conversations, but they were weighted. I could tell it was really important to him.”
Earnhardt Jr. was having a series of bad weeks in February 2009. He explained to the Bleacher Report what was going on “After a long week of constant criticism, Dale Jr. sat down with Darrell Waltrip, and got to the bottom of the “Big One,” once and for all, after DW said, “I don’t care what your name is, you don’t hit someone like that,” following the crash at Daytona.
The interview started with Waltrip asking Jr., “So uh, how has your week been?” Jr. responds with, “There have been a lot of wrecks at Daytona and Talladega, and none have been scrutinized as much as this one. It was not a good day, but I have had worse.” Waltrip then goes into mentioning the pit road incident, when Jr. passed and claimed he couldn’t recognize his bit board. He responded with, “Yeah, I was just coming up with an excuse to cover my butt.” Guess even the best drivers have the worst days, but it’s interesting to see how everyone rallied around him.
After his horrible string of crashes in 2009, Tony Eury Jr. told Earnhardt Jr. he was going to do pitstop runs until he got it together. Earnhardt told the Bleacher Report how it went down “Jr. then goes into mention how he used to practice pit stops with his team all the time, but hasn’t in about three years. This winter, Eury Jr. (Jr.’s crew chief), called him up and told him to come practice pit stops with the team. Jr. then said that was the end of that, ’cause you can “obviously” see why. DW talks about Jr.’s penalty of being over the pit line. He then says that after that he could see the “raging bull” in Jr.”
Pit stops are more important than you might realize, and in the sport of driving it can make the difference between a win and a loss. Likewise, you want to make sure that you are scoring the right way and getting those pit stops in on time.
Part of his awful 2009 season was due to the ongoing feud that he had with driver Brian Vickers. In an interview with the Bleacher Report, he explained how it went down Jr. asked Waltrip, “First off, what’s wrong with that?” Waltrip says nothing and that he likes that, but it was out of character for Jr. Jr. agrees and goes into how he felt he had the car to win and just needed to dig them out of the hole.
He mentions how they need to go, I mean, after all, this is the Daytona 500. Then we get to Vickers and the “Big One.” Jr. says that he had a good run on Vickers, so he slowly went underneath to let Vickers know he is coming. Vickers came down and hit the right front fender of Jr., and pushed him below the yellow line. Jr. continues, “I saw grass and turned up back onto the race track. The first half of the wreck was his doing, the second half was my doing.” Almost feels like something you’d see at a professional wrestling show.
Naturally, Earnhardt takes a lot of responsibility for the type of season that they had as well. Things weren’t going smoothly for him as he explained to Bleacher Report. He said that he felt bad for about 80 percent of the cars in the wreck, and the other 20 percent he couldn’t care less about. Jr. also goes into how he feels that most of the new guys don’t understand his driving style. A lot of the new guys don’t understand when the popularity and the results don’t match up.
Waltrip asked what would Jr. do if car owner Rick Hendrick, told him to forget about Whiskey River, his buddies, and his ranch and just focus on racing for the year. Jr. says, “You should take a week off, hang out with me every day of that week and you would be surprised where my mind is on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. It’s pretty close to that.” From that point on, Earnhardt turned things around and continued to maintain his dominance.