In 2007 Athlon Sports sat down to talk with NASCAR's most popular driver
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Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver by any measure. Officially, he’s run away with the award in fan voting four years in a row. He carries both the legacy of his late father, who won seven championships, and the loyalty of an entirely new generation of young fans.
Winning the Nextel Cup championship isn’t just a goal for the 32-year-old star. To millions of fans, it is his destiny. He’s getting closer. In 2006, he finished fifth in the final points standings, trailing only Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Given his resurgence following a disappointing 2005 season, Earnhardt Jr. must be considered one of the favorites for the 2007 crown.
It’s not easy, though, given the extraordinary expectations, not to mention the hopes and dreams that follow the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet on every single lap around a NASCAR track.
As this interview attests, Junior handles it all with remarkable grace and humility, and those are characteristics that reflect the character of a champion.
Athlon Sports: When you look at your popularity, I don’t think it can all be attributed to the fact that you are Dale Earnhardt’s son. Sure, you inherited the loyalty of most of your father’s fans, but I think one of the big keys is that people see you as your own man and, especially with young fans, a voice of your generation. You’ve got enough confidence and self-reliance to be yourself. Is that harder than it looks?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I was just worried about what everybody thought early in my career, and now, you get to the point to where you feel like you’ve paid your dues and you’ve just got to make yourself happy. If that doesn’t suit everybody, that doesn’t suit everybody, and that’s just the way the world is.
AS: Life can be a progression in which a man finds out that things he once blindly accepted were wrong. When you reach your 30s, you kind of stumble across the concept of wisdom. Have you experienced that?
DE: Wisdom? I’m not there yet. I think I understand the concept because I kind of watched my daddy get there … and other people that I’ve known over the years, other family members growing up. Right now, I’m at the common-sense level. I’m not at the wisdom level. The wisdom level’s yet to come.
AS: You’ve been through a lot. Do hard times make you better and tougher?
DE: Absolutely. I think, yeah, there are certain things in this world that could happen to me that might break me, but it ain’t happened yet. Things that are tough do make you stronger. I think the 2005 season made me better — like other things, my granddaddy died and my daddy died, dealing with watching my family go through some issues — those type things make you tougher day to day, but the year I had in ’05 made me more appreciative.
One thing I got was more appreciative of the people I work with. I don’t know why. The guys I had in ’05 were good. It wasn’t like I saw what it was like to be around a bunch of bums. They weren’t bad people, and they knew what they were doing. I missed Tony (Eury) Jr. a lot, and being back with him is good because I missed him and I missed working with him. I missed that trust and the belief, I guess, I had in him. He’s matured, and he’s got all these guys behind him and believing in him. He’s got all these people working on his team and believing in me. That sort of inspired me.
Steve Hmiel taught me a lot. Everybody’s got their faults. Everybody’s got their issues. Maybe he could hold his temper better, but Steve taught me a lot about, really, where racing is in your life, where it ranks in importance. In the past, I bounced around between family and friends, back and forth, and I settled a lot of questions I had in life. Every time we had a problem — every single disaster — he (Hmiel) had a way to settle it down and calm it down. He helped me get the deal and come out the other end where you could actually go home and live with yourself and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror.
I learned a lot. To be in a position I’m in now … to have given it all away and gotten it back … that’s a blessing.
AS: What role does Steve Hmiel take now? I’m assuming you don’t have as close contact with him now, but is he still one of people you rely on?
DE: Absolutely. One of the reasons why I like working with Steve is I have a lot more respect for him. I have way more respect for Steve than I had for Pete (Rondeau) because I’ve known Steve for a long time. I trust Steve. They might know the same stuff. One might not be any better than the other, but it was, I guess, just a matter of respect and authority. There were certain lines I’d never cross over with Steve, whereas I might with Pete or even now with Tony Jr. You can’t overstate how much Steve helped prepare me for getting back together with Tony Jr. The thing about Tony Jr. is, when you cross those lines with him, he’ll throw it right back at you and keep you in check. Either way works out. You have enough respect that you won’t cross that line with them, Steve and Tony Jr., and if you do, it’s a different situation (than with Rondeau) because you know each other so well, and they’re strong enough to throw it back at you.
At this point in his career, I think Steve (Hmiel’s) a little over-qualified for being a crew chief, because of what he’s been through and achieved in his career and what he’s accomplished. He needs to be the Director of Motorsports, to have a position supervising the whole operation. He serves our team better handling the wind-tunnel stuff and the body-shop stuff instead of this. Those are the things he should be doing, and he needs to be doing. When Steve was my crew chief, it wasn’t a long-term solution, but it was a solution that worked very well at the time, one that got us and me back on track. After Steve came in and straightened things out, we went into the 2006 season and knew we didn’t have any excuses anymore. The cars were better, and every time we changed something, the car improved. The finishes got better. It was obvious that Steve improved things because he knew what he was doing, and that’s not something that got as much attention as it probably should have, but within the team, we all knew what a great effect Steve Hmiel had on the team and how much he set a standard and laid a groundwork for better things.
AS: Have you learned to cope with adversity better?
DE: Oh, yeah, that’s another lesson I learned when we had a bad year, didn’t make the Chase, in ’05. We could go back to the shop, and work and work and work, and come back two days later and not run any faster than we’d been running. You just have to go through experiences week after week after week to find speed, and that’s not found in how late you stay at work.
AS: Who taught you to be your own man? Was it your father?
DE: I didn’t really learn all that from my daddy. I learned as much from Gary Hargett (who ran his short-track teams before he moved up to the Busch Series and then Cup) and the people I spent most of my time with.
A lot of people don’t know him (Hargett) and probably never will, but I admired him because of what a ‘smartass’ he was. Gary always had a comment and a quote for every moment, and my mom was probably the same way. I was racing late models with Gary for three years, and every weekend we were together. That sort of molded my personality coming into the Busch Series.
I didn’t really get that from Dad, or Tony (Eury) Sr. (his uncle and crew chief in the Busch Series and Cup through 2004), maybe Tony Jr. a little bit, because he’s pretty much his own man. Those are the two men (Hargett and Eury Jr.) I admired the most at that time and still do today.
Darrell Waltrip was pretty good. Rusty (Wallace) was pretty good at that, and those were the guys I watched my dad race. I didn’t pay much attention to Dad’s interviews and how Dad was, personality-wise, in front of the cameras. Dad’s whole deal was a persona. … It was real, but he was like John Wayne. Like I said, it was a persona. He sold the merchandise, and all that stuff sold his personality.
AS: It did seem to get under your skin when people wrote that you were ‘overrated.’ First of all, given your popularity, it’s kind of unavoidable for some to make that observation, but, secondly, doesn’t that kind of come with the territory?
DE: I’ve got a big old core group of fans, and they totally overshadow all of the negative things that you hear yourself or you hear that somebody said about you. When I have a bad weekend, I get letters about how to keep my head up and keep digging, and how everybody is behind me. … Even the people that aren’t my fans, they aren’t going to write me about how happy they are that I didn’t run good.
I know what I’m capable of, and I know I haven’t reached those capabilities yet, so that’s disappointing. These are good years for me and my career at this age, and to not be able to reach that potential and not be able to accomplish the goals is difficult and disappointing. You just try to remedy whatever you feel like the faults are and try to maintain a positive attitude. That’s probably the most important thing, to stay positive around your team. Negative attitudes sort of spread like a virus through the team and can really self-destruct the whole program.
AS: You and your cousin, Tony Eury Jr., are close personally as well as professionally. What changed in the year apart? Did the two of you need that separation, and was it a good thing in the long run?
DE: Well, I think, yes. On my side of it, I think I appreciate what Tony Jr. does more than I once did. I think, too, that he believes or takes to heart everything I’m saying and tries to use that as information more so than in the past. You know, we’re both just showing each other a lot more respect. When I’m talking about the car and when he’s putting the (chassis) setup under there or wanting to make a change, I’m going with it 100 percent. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to work. We’re going to try to maintain that respect because that’s sort of the key to keeping each other happy.
One of us has got to get out and sort of pat the other on the back and put his nose back to the grindstone a little bit and try to get it back where it was. … Now I go to every race track with a lot of confidence. … That was pretty much what I needed to do as my end of the bargain. Now my determination shows outwardly, and I don’t keep it all in anymore.
AS: You competed for a championship last year. Is this going to be the year you win it?
DE: First of all, I think that’s always the goal. You’ve got to set the bar high, and the championship was the goal last year and the year before that. I think the year we had in 2006 might make it more realistic, and we might come into this year with more momentum and optimism, stuff like that.
I don’t really know exactly what the expectations are, but I know that they’re high. I know people want us to win or expect us to win, expect me to be a contender, you know, week-in, week-out, and, you know, there are a lot of variables. There were a lot of variables in my dad’s day. He had sort of up-and-down years earlier in his career trying to get with the right program and the right people.
Even he wasn’t the sole reason why those guys won all those championships. It came down to every one of them having some sort of a talent and some way to fit the pieces to the puzzle together. … There are a lot of things that play into winning races and being successful year-in and year-out. … I feel like I can win a championship. I’m a good enough racecar driver, so, basically, that’s what we just focus on — go out and win races and win that championship.
I have good confidence in myself, but I don’t know if I have realized my potential, personally. I don’t know if I’ve realized exactly how capable of driving a racecar I am. With that said, I feel like I got most of the field covered, but I still think there’s a lot more to it and a lot more to learn.
AS: Success is enjoyable, but it really doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t mold your character like facing adversity. What did you learn from a difficult 2005 season that helped you regain your form in 2006?
DE: It was a difficult year, and, you know, there were times when maybe it wasn’t that tough, and there were times, or things that happened, that might’ve been tougher than it seemed from outside. You know, the atmosphere in the garage can be very different from one week to the next. For the first part of that season, when we first started out and were trying to get our act together, it was a little easier to handle. It was easy to handle when we struggled a little bit. Getting the cars to turn, getting the cars to work, it was just a situation where you were so busy that, I don’t know, things didn’t pile up on you and it wasn’t something you dwelled on.
Then, though, it was hard to make the change as far as the crew chief was concerned. I really like Pete (Rondeau), and he and I haven’t talked since. It cost me a friendship. I don’t know, man. I hope I’ll talk to him again one of these days. I hope we can patch it up sometime down the road. Maybe he’ll get in a good situation where I’ll feel it was all for the better. It was tough and, then, even with Steve (Hmiel), we ran badly a few times and people were asking questions, but it was easy to defend and it didn’t really bother me. I was learning a lot. The experience was different. Running in the back and not having everything go your way was an experience that I got something good out of. Then we started having some good runs, and all those little problems that you see very easily on the surface, there’s a lot more under the surface. It’s kind of the iceberg theory. You couldn’t see all the little problems anymore, and the big problems became little problems, and everything was cool.
Then, when 2006 started, the biggest problem became the pressure, I suppose, as we saw our chance to make the Chase become a little more realistic. The pressure of that happening and trying to accomplish it started weighing on everybody. As the season went along, it raised expectations. You run every lap really, really hard. You’re exhausted when it’s over with. There’s all the testing, and it all gets magnified because you’re running better, and you’ve gotten back to where you’re one of the better teams, and now you want to take that extra step and really work hard to become, you know, the best. That comes with the territory. There was definitely this pressure — and it comes from both inside, from me and my crew, and outside, with expectations — that we hadn’t had the year before.
AS: No matter how hard you work, though, it still becomes a matter of doing the best you can, doesn’t it? One great week doesn’t necessarily mean anything the next. One week the car may be near-perfect, and the next, the team can’t get it to run. There’s no chance to relax, is there?
DE: You get your hopes up. You find yourself in the Chase for the Championship, and you know it’s a legitimate thing. The championship is out there, man, and it’s so close you can taste it. In 2005, there were a lot of times where, it would’ve been foolish to get your hopes up, but last year we had a legitimate shot. We had a reason to get our hopes up. You finish in the top five several times, and then you get a win (Richmond, Va., on May 6, 2006), and you finish top five at Darlington, and you start feeling like you’re really on a roll because, even when you finish back eighth or ninth, you see that it’s somewhat of an improvement.
But there are always frustrations. Everything’s going great, and then you get to the next track, where you’re 33rd in practice, and you go, ‘Thirty-third? What the hell’s wrong? At least we could be 15th or 20th, have some kind of hope.’ That’s when your maturity’s got to kick in, weeks like that. You’ve got to settle down, work with your crew and make the best of it. That’s as much a challenge, if not more so, than winning a race with a car that’s real strong.
AS: In general, you’re well-liked in the media, but you face greater demands on your time than most drivers simply because of your popularity and because there’s such a demand for interviews. Everywhere you go, there are photographers snapping your picture and a crush of people crowding in, even when you have other things on your mind and other duties you have to concentrate on. How do you cope with all that?
DE: I’ve got a lot better handle on that than I used to. I’m not going to go knock a camera out of somebody’s hands like some guys do. At the same time, I think about that a lot. I’ll be sitting in the car, feeling really frustrated, just grinding my teeth and agonizing over what we need to do, what we have to do. And there’s a guy sitting there, filming me. And I think to myself, man, why’s the guy filming me? I’m not going to run over there and knock the camera out of his hand, but I’m thinking, he’s sure as hell making a big deal out of everything. Remember that baseball player (Kenny Rogers), year before last, I think, who knocked down the cameraman? Coverage was, like, minute-by-minute. He went to court today, etc., etc., is he going to play, will he apologize, etc., etc.
The guy lost his temper. Everybody loses their temper. They need to drop it, but in a sense, he’s got to eventually understand that, until he chills out and quits giving them something to report, it won’t go away. If he keeps giving them what they want — there’s a guy in front of the courthouse filming him, and obviously he’s not filming him for any reason, he’s hoping he blows up again — there’s no reason why you’re filming that guy, because he’s not doing anything to film. Obviously you’re trying to get something out of the guy, and sure enough, he starts running his mouth. So the guys who are filming him, they end up getting what they wanted.
I was thinking about that. If you’re going to sit there and enjoy the popularity, you’ve got to enjoy the other side of it too when you’re not running good. It comes with the territory.
AS: Your friend Tony Stewart climbs the fence when he wins a race. Carl Edwards does back flips. Have you ever thought about coming up with some unique form of celebration that would set you apart?
DE: Nah, man, that’s not me. To each his own, but I want it to be spontaneous. I don’t want to be trapped into some kind of performance that would be expected. I mean, when Tony climbs the fence and mounts the flag stand, I think it’s cool. Only thing about it, he knows if he wins a race, he’s going to have to climb a fence. It’s like that back flip. I’d be worried that one day it’s not going to work, know what I mean?