Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been named the Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver for 12 straight years (2003-14). The 40-year-old son of racing royalty and member of the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut is a fan favorite, for obvious reasons. But what does Dale Jr. like? Start with Bristol Motor Speedway, where he will race Sunday.
Athlon Sports caught up with Dale Jr. to talk about the iconic track, childhood memories at the bullring, the new paint scheme on his No. 88 Chevrolet and one of Dale Jr.’s favorite bands — Old Crow Medicine Show, who will play the Bristol prerace concert this weekend.
Where does Bristol rank among tracks on the Cup schedule?
Bristol fights for that top spot. I always loved going there as a kid. It’s one of the more exciting racetracks to be at as a fan. When I used to go watch my father race, being able to run around the pits and garage area all weekend long, when they were preparing to race and then sit down and watch the race, there’s not a bad seat in the house at Bristol. And it’s as much fun to race there as it was to see. It’s very special to me and my heart. It’s a tough race to win, but it’s a great feeling when you do.
What is your favorite Bristol memory?
When we swept in ’04. That was a great, great weekend. To be able to win the Nationwide race and the Cup race. We lapped all the way up to sixth place in the Cup race. We had this long, uncharacteristic green-flag run where we had to pit under green. We ended up lapping a lot of cars. Our car was just the class of the field that night.
Does a win mean more at a historic track like Bristol?
Yeah, it does. I like the history of the sport. I grew up in a house full of trophies, right? With my dad winning all the races he won, there was trophies on every shelf. Some of those trophies are different, more unique than others. The trophy for Bristol is a very, very tall trophy. I remember one of the races he won at Bristol, I got a picture of me standing next to the trophy and I’m shorter than the trophy.
When you’re a kid and you see something that big that you can win at that event, No. 1 you hoped it would never change, so when you got your opportunity to race there you could win the same trophy. And you hoped you’d have that opportunity, No. 2. And we were able to do that.
You don’t seem to drive quite as aggressive as your father, “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt. Why is that?
Well, it’s easy to be aggressive when your cars are good. I’ve been aggressive when the time comes — when it seems to be necessary and when the car can do it. You can’t go running with guys when you’re not handling well or the car doesn’t have a lot of speed because they’ll get you back pretty easy.
Who’s most likely to cause a problem at Bristol?
Anybody, really. Anybody. Whoever’s up there. … Anyone in that position is gonna do whatever it takes to win. Because Bristol’s a track where guys want that trophy on their mantle.
Any pranks planned for teammate Jeff Gordon’s last season?
I’m sure Jimmie (Johnson) has some ideas on some things he’s got brewing. I don’t know if he’ll clue in me and Kasey (Kahne).
Old Crow Medicine Show is playing the prerace show at Bristol. You’re a big fan of those guys aren’t you?
Yeah I been listening to them guys. I actually come across them about four or five years ago and love a lot of their songs. They kind of turned me on to a new genre of music that I’d really not heard before. And being a fan I was really excited when I heard they were gonna come play at the pre-race, so all the other drivers and mechanics and guys can actually get a chance to see them and hear them. So it’ll be great.
What do you think about the new Mountain Dew DEWshine paint scheme on the No. 88 car, which will debut at Bristol?
I guess what matters is what everybody else thinks. I’m just anxious to see what the fans think. I had a little involvement myself. I think it turned out great. The gold numbers are back for Bristol. We’re gonna put some tire marks on that thing and hopefully put it in Victory Lane on top of that building over there at Turn 3.
Ketch Secor, lead singer of Old Crow Medicine Show, on Bristol:
That’s where motor racing really calls home — the place where Tennessee and North Carolina and Virginia and Kentucky all come together. That’s sort of the epicenter, in my mind, of racing. Racing fans, they really come from that part of the country.
Anyhow, we’ve always loved playing music in Bristol, Tennessee. It’s the birthplace of country music. It’s a place where the Bristol Sessions found the discovery of some of the seminal figures in early country music history. So, we’ll be really proud to be part of the show this April 19.