In 2018, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stopped driving — but he was busier than ever. He started his broadcasting career with NBC, wrote a book about his struggles with concussions (Racing to the Finish) and became a first-time father — his wife Amy gave birth to Isla Rose last April. He talked with Athlon Sports’ Matt Crossman about his transition to the booth, the exercises he used to get healthy and racing again.
From the first time you were in the NBC TV booth in the fall of 2016 at Talladega, you seemed both comfortable and good at it. Looking back, it seems obvious that was going to be what you did in the second half of your career. Were you already thinking that then?
I never thought about doing broadcasting before. In 2016, when I got hurt, I got to go into the booth in Martinsville and Talladega for about an hour, hour-and-a-half. I wanted to be able to go on TV and show the fans that were watching the races, “Hey, here I am, I’m alive, I’m doing OK.” I never even thought about the broadcasting side of it, and liking that or not liking that. I went into the booth, and when I came out, I was like, “Man that was fricking fun. That was way funner than I ever thought it would be.” I was thinking, “Shoot, I might be interested in broadcasting.” I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to do after I got done driving. I knew I was going to quit in a year or two. Broadcasting was not on the radar. I started getting text messages from friends of mine and people in the industry, saying, “Man, you were really good at that, you could do that if you wanted to.” That gave me confidence to see if there was interest from the networks.
What’s been the most challenging part of the transition, and how have you handled it?
There’s a couple things that are challenging. It’s real fast-paced. There’s four broadcasters in the booth. There’s not a lot of opportunity for you to get in there and talk and get a thought out. You have to be aggressive. My boothmates are great guys. They’ve really been supportive to me. But they won’t hold your hand and go, “OK man, here’s your opportunity to talk.” You’ve got to get in there and do it yourself. Being able to use all the tools in front of me — the telestrator, the talk-back button to the producer. To push the button and talk to the producer and say, “Hey, this is something cool to watch. Let’s go here” — being confident to do that took a little bit of time.
If you polled NASCAR fans, they would probably say, “Slide job!” at Chicagoland was the most memorable moment of the year for you. What was your most memorable moment, and why?
The “slide job” was a great experience. The finish to Martinsville was pretty wild. The pass on Martin Truex Jr. by Joey Logano at the end of the race at Homestead was really impressive. Those three probably stand out as the moments. We started our broadcasting in Chicago. We got an amazing race, an amazing finish. We couldn’t have asked for more. We had a wild one at Daytona. We had all kinds of stuff to talk about. There was something every single lap. We just had a lot of great races. I’ve been in the car watching the races from that vantage point, and to be quite honest, there wasn’t a whole lot going on out there. For whatever reason, I was underwhelmed with what I saw from my vantage point for the last five to eight years. I felt sort of that way about the first half of the season. When we got into the broadcast booth, I don’t know if it was being able to watch the race from that perspective, that seat, or whatever, but it was like a switch flipped, and it was chaos, action, awesome finishes. Kentucky wasn’t all that great. But for the most part, every Xfinity race or Cup race, we had a great experience, and I enjoyed what I saw. That caught me off guard a little bit, that the racing was so good. There was an intensity and an urgency in the environment. You could feel it from the cars and drivers. There was a new urgency, a new energy, that I hadn’t felt in several years.
It seems as though four-letter words are sometimes among your favorites. Did you ever drop one so the producer had to hit the silencer button?
I’ve not dropped any that would get them in big trouble. I said the word “damn” and maybe “hell” a time or two. But I think that’s OK. You don’t want to make a habit out of it. It’s not something I’m thinking about. Sometimes it just comes out, because I talk that way in general. When I came in, I was really nervous that I was going to say the F-word. Because I say it a lot in my personal life. Me and my wife, we just had a little girl, and we were talking about it. She said, “Maybe we need to say it less ourselves, even at home, try to take it out of our vocabulary as much we can.” Maybe that’s been helpful.
Usually, when a driver gets hurt, the way back into the car is simple. But the way to fix your brain is not. In your book, you describe exercising with a disco light, climbing up into a treehouse and walking a line toe-to-toe like a drunk-driving test. Did you ever wonder, what in the heck am I doing?
All the time. Some of the exercises were so simple or mundane that you wondered, “How could this be helping anything?” The fear inside of you, though, says, “Hey, I’ve got to buy in 100 percent. I’ve got to believe in this. If I doubt this, I’m going to drive myself crazy worrying whether I am ever going to get well.” You think while you’re doing it, “Man, this seems so simple, I can’t understand how it can fix something so complex as the brain.” But you’ll learn that if you want to get well, you’ve got to drink the Kool-Aid. You have to say, “I don’t care what it is they want me to do, I’m doing it, I believe in my doctor, he’s a hero, he’s going to fix it.” That’s the emotional roller coaster you go on. Whenever I would think, “Oh man, this is silly, this ain’t working, these exercises are so simple, they’re not doing crap,” I’d call my doctor and tell him that. I’d tell him, “I don’t believe none of this s---’s doing anything, I’m so mad.” He would talk you off a ledge and pump you back up and get you back in there working.
In the book, you talk about being triggered at Martinsville and the Coke 600 in 2018, after you retired from driving but before the NBC work started. Did that happen once the NBC work started?
It did not. But in both of those cases, I called my doctor. He explained to me why all that went down. I was freaking out, thinking I was having sort of a relapse or something. I was like, “Why is this happening? I’m healed, why am I having problems?” He explained to me to calm down, not worry about it, it wasn’t anything long term. It was situational. He told me how to fix that. Which made me feel great. Going forward, I haven’t had any problems like that since. But I’m sure I’ll get into some environments that are complex and new that might trigger me again one day. I’ll just know what to do better.
Are you going to keep racing in one Xfinity race a year?
Is it going to be Richmond every year or are you going to do somewhere else?
I want to run Darlington next year. I know I’m going to regret it because it’s hot as s--- that weekend. But I want to do a throwback. I love the history of the sport. Otherwise, yeah, it’s going to be a hot and miserable experience. But I think I’ll enjoy it.
Have you pulled any scams to get out of changing a diaper?
I like to change them. We sort of have it structured. I always get her up in the morning, so I change that diaper. We trade off during the day. My wife, Amy, does most of them, to be honest. But I do a few during the day. I don’t mind. I like it. I think it’s important for Isla to see me as a person who provides and cares, much like her mom. I’m afraid that if I didn’t do those things, especially in months 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, she’s not going to need me. When she wants to be held, she’s going to want to be held by Momma all the time, because Momma changes the diapers, Momma feeds her, Momma does x, y and z. I want to be the person that she looks at to provide those things too as well, takes care of her. I think it’s important to be active for her to give you back that affection you’re looking for as a dad.
What is your favorite book to read to your daughter?
Probably the Little Red Caboose. That was my first book as a kid.
Why do you like it so much?
I read it a crap-ton when I was little. I’m into history and nostalgia and all that. Not just with racing, with anything. If I have something from my childhood, I don’t know why I want her to like it, but I do.
Being a new parent makes you do some strange things. What is something you do or have done that you didn’t expect to be doing?
I crawled into her crib with her one time. She just started sleeping in it. She lays in that crib. She can lay in that crib in the morning with no problem. She doesn’t want anybody to come get her. She doesn’t need anything. She just plays with her paci and rolls over back and forth, back and forth, gets up on her hands and knees. She’ll play and play and play by herself for 30 damn minutes in this crib. When we’re downstairs in the living room, she wants someone’s attention. She wants someone to play with her. She rarely will play by herself. But in her crib, she will. So I just wanted to crawl in there with her and lay there and listen to her talk and coo and whatever. Amy told me she climbed in there. I thought, “I’m going to climb in there then.” So one morning I went in there to get her up and laid in there for 15 minutes.
Yes! It’s the greatest thing. She just lays there. Doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t need anything. Doesn’t need a toy. Doesn’t need us to entertain her. It’s the only place she does that.
A few years ago, I researched the results drivers had after becoming first-time fathers. Just about everybody, their results went down. If you were still driving, would you lift earlier because now you have a baby at home?
I don’t know that you would do it consciously. But you completely change as a person unknowingly. There are risks that I am not willing to take any more in my natural daily life that I would have taken all the time. Like cycling on the highway. I used to ride all the time. Now that I have Isla, I have a hard time convincing myself that it’s OK to do it. There’s all kinds of things in my daily life that I might do more carefully. I would have to assume that absolutely you would race differently. But not consciously. You wouldn’t know you were doing it differently, you would just do it differently. It changed me incredibly. I don’t need to go out here and get myself injured, do something that would take me away from her. I want to have this great quality of life with her. So I think about that all the time when I’m doing something.
After my first child was born, it took me three hours to decide which way to take her home from the hospital. I could not imagine going 65 miles per hour on the interstate.
Yeah. Right. Certain people will do that. Certain people may not. I have those thoughts in my mind. My wife doesn’t. I tell my wife, “She could get hurt doing that,” or “This could happen.” She’s like, “Why are you worrying about all that? That’s silly.” My wife is completely not like that. I am so worried about her safety that it drives me crazy.
Who’s going to be the 2019 Cup champion?
My dark horse is going to be Chase Elliott. I got a weird feeling that Chevrolet is going to have a better year, Hendrick is going to have a turnaround, and it will happen throughout the season. You’ll see them get better and better throughout the season. By the end of the year, Chase is going to be peaking at the right time. I think he’ll win the championship as a dark horse. You’ve got to look at Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. I think Kevin Harvick is the favorite. He’s got the best odds right now in Vegas to win it next year.