Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveals Indy 500 picks, talks rivalries in NASCAR and reveals secrets about past
Here's what the legend had to say to CBS Sports
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will have a new name next season after the sport's contract with their current entitlement sponsor. While NASCAR has gone through a variety of changes in name -- Strictly Stock, Grand National, Winston, Nextel, Sprint and Monster Energy -- one name has remained constant throughout: Earnhardt.
Earnhardt is a name synonymous with NASCAR, made famous by "The Intimidator" Dale Earnhardt Sr, who won a record seven NASCAR Cup Series before his death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., went on to continue the family legacy on the track, winning two Daytona 500s in addition to being crowned NASCAR's Most Popular Driver 15 times.
Now a retired driver and broadcaster for NBC, Dale Jr is experiencing NASCAR the way his fans and his family have for many years. CBS Sports spoke with Earnhardt Jr. ahead of one of the biggest weekend's in motorsports.
Here's the full conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. You can listen along via the player below while reading.
Dale Jr. reveals who he's rooting for at the Indy 500
Matthew Mayer: You're going to be broadcasting for the Indy 500 this weekend. It's the first time NBC is taking it since ESPN has had it all these years. Tell me how excited you are to finally be a broadcaster for the Indy 500. You did the NASCAR championship last year and now you're doing the Indy 500.
Dale Earnhardt Jr: I had a lot of fun last year covering NASCAR and fortunately working with NBC they've sent me to some other events that I'd never seen in my life. The Kentucky Derby I went to for the first time a couple weeks ago and that was a tremendous experience. I've never been to the Indy 500. I've never been to that race, and it's one of the biggest events in our world and in motorsports. And so to have the opportunity to go in the first place was going to be something obviously I was going to have to check off my bucket list. I'm thankful that NBC is sending me there to work with Rutledge Wood and all the great people that work with NBC. Mike Tirico, Danica Patrick is going to be there. It's going to be fun to reconnect with her. So I'm looking forward to that whole experience of sort of taking in that whole spectacle of the Indy 500.
They also just asked me recently a couple days ago to drive the pace car so I couldn't turn that down. It's just an incredible honor and opportunity to be even more a part of the weekend and experience something new. So just thrilled to be able to do it, hopefully we do a great job. I'm sure we will. I know the race will be exciting and memorable and exciting and I can't wait to get there.
Matthew Mayer: Prepping for this race as a broadcaster, you've gotta do a whole lot. So I'm sure you've studied the drivers a whole lot. Do you have a pick to win yet?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: Well I'm real good friends with Graham Rahal. We actually had a partnership with Nationwide years ago together. We got to know each other pretty good through that relationship and I was a big John Force fan and he's sort of married into that family and that's pretty unique. So I pull for him all the time.
I've gotten to know Will Power recently through doing our podcast with Will and he's the defending champion. Certainly a passionate guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and gives it everything he's got. And he lives in Mooresville so he's a local guy, which is pretty cool. Most of those Indy guys, a lot of them live up in Indianapolis or all various different locations all over the country. So he's kind of our Mooresville guy. So those two right there are right off the top of the list. Marco Andretti is another friend and he's an Andretti! You know? Just the legacy in that name. I can certainly relate to what he experiences as an individual and a family with such rich heritage and history. We sort of have a lot in common there.
What it's like to be an Earnhardt
Matthew Mayer: Let's stay on that topic while you talk about Andretti and Earnhardt. You've had so many opportunities since you got fired from that auto mechanic job back in the day and it's really surreal to have watched your career unfold. I watched you my entire life. What was it like to be an Earnhardt?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: It was amazing, a lot of fun. A lot of great things. Very intimidating at times you know my dad was the person, the persona that people thought he was as far as being the Intimidator, the man in black and all that. It's kind of the way he was at home. He was as intimidating and tough as a parent. You never wanted to let him down. You didn't definitely want to make him upset and get him crossed with you.
So it was intense, super intense, would be the way I would categorize it and you were always moving. We were always somewhere new, somewhere different doing something, part of something. There was always something happening going on. There wasn't a lot of down time. We didn't go on a lot of vacations. I was always at a race you know, always doing something related to racing, connected to racing which was fine for me as a kid growing up or as a young teenager.I loved it. All I wanted to do was be around race cars and be involved in it somehow someway.
Matthew Mayer: Do you feel that on the track you were treated any differently by the drivers? I think about last week and Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman going at it at the checkered flag after the All-Star Race. Is that something you could have seen happening to yourself based on the Earnhardt name?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: Well I think most of the drivers were always pretty nice with me and I had a pretty solid reputation with those guys I think for the most part. You know, you get crossed up with a few of them every once and a while through the years but for the most part you try to hammer it out. The racing is only a fraction of who you are and it's not everything about that individual. When you first start out you just think everybody is a race car driver and all that matters is driving and being a driver. You learn how complex people are as you go through life and racing with the same people for many many years you realize what other things they have in common with you.
I think I had a pretty decent relationship with most of the guys I raced against and I felt like I raced them pretty clean. We would beat and bang every once and a while but just having fun. At least I was having fun. But I've never had too many guys get out and complain. Every once and a while they did.
Which drivers does Dale Jr. have the most respect for?
Matthew Mayer: Is there a driver out there that never really knew how much you respected him?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: I always wonder if the veterans, you know the guys my dad raced against: Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett, the list goes on and on. I don't think that those guys probably know how much I appreciated and respected them. Especially after dad passed away and how they all kind of took care of me, if you will. Kenny Schrader, Kenny Wallace, those kind of guys right there mean the world to me.
As far as the guys I competed with, Martin Truex Jr's friendship is very important to me, Clint Bowyer. There wasn't really a driver on the race track that I did not want to be friends with or want to get along with. Even Kyle Busch, and at times other drivers. I always wanted to eventually figure it out and find a way to co-exist and even be friends and get along. That's just my personal make-up whether I was going to be a race car driver or a dealership service mechanic I just wanted everyone to get along. I didn't like conflict and confrontation. I wanted everybody to be happy and enjoying what they were doing.
Who Dale Jr. would most like to beat in a race
Matthew Mayer: From a competition point of view, head-to-head, coming to the checkered flag, who would have provided you the most satisfaction if you were to beat them in a shootout?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: Oh, Kyle Busch! He's one of the best out there. We were always sort of bitter rivals throughout most of my career, at least in the second half of my career. There was a bit of a rivalry there so when I beat him it was a bit personal but you also knew that you were beating one of the best.
I felt that way against Jimmie Johnson as well, I mean the guy is a seven-time champion and at one little part of his career he won five in a row. If you outran him, what a great feeling. Jeff Gordon! Same thing. There's a couple guys on that list.
Will Dale Jr's daughter Isla ever get behind the wheel of a NASCAR?
Matthew Mayer: And your father ... I would have liked to have seen him race against Kyle Busch. That would have been a heck of a rivalry. We talked about Earnhardt and Gordon I was actually watching the special with my dad and he was entranced in it. It brings me to the whole point of NASCAR is about family. We see the Elliotts, we see the Earnhardts, we see the Busch brothers. You've done a tremendous job for your daughter, in the industry… Is your goal to see her get behind the wheel of a race car?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: That is not my goal. I wouldn't be bothered if she wanted nothing to do with it. It'll be interesting to see how that fits into her life and how much interest -- if at all -- she'll have about that. I'm sure she's going to be curious but I don't know having never really experienced my career, or experienced my life at the race track, continuously going week in and week out. I don't think that it's something that she's going to be very interested in. It might be pretty foreign to her to be honest with you. I'm just as curious as everybody else how that's going to work out.
Dale Jr. reveals he was a smoker during his NASCAR days
Matthew Mayer: Well you've done a tremendous job setting a great example for your daughter off the track as well as on the track and you're setting a great example through your work with Nicorette. Can you tell me a little bit about what you've got going on with them?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: Yeah so for many years, 15 years to be exact, I was a smoker and that's part of my life that I sort of put in a box that I was never going to reveal. It wasn't going to do me any good to reveal that or tell that story. I've been a non-smoker for over six years now. Nicorette came to me a couple months ago and said you know we've got a new product: the coated ice mint lozenges that we want to unveil. We'd love to have you help us do that and they put me in a position somewhat like a coach to help people on their quit journey. And what we've done is, I incorporated my family this program. Danny Earnhardt Jr., who is my cousin and some race fans as well, we took them on a test drive. We got in the car, we talked about my experience with quitting and what they're going through, the struggles of trying to quit smoking and we introduced this new product. Nicorette, the coated ice mint lozenges to them to try and help assist them on their quit journey. I didn't have a product like this when I was trying to quit, it would have been a lot easier if I had. I quit, I tried many times and failed. I believe that I probably wouldn't have had such a struggle had I had a product like this on the line at the time. Also I just like to help people. I know how happy I am to be free of all that and have that out of my life for so many years and I want to help somebody have that same experience. I think we can do it. We're going to go through this process and we're going to hopefully change some lives over the next several months.
Matthew Mayer: As far as on the track, was there ever a moment where as a smoker that you really just felt that urge and you were in a big race. Is there a moment that stands out for you when you were on the track and that urged you?
Dale Earnhardt Jr: There's not a moment where, I can't remember it ever being so profound that it stuck in my memory but I usually could get through the races without a real problem. However as soon as I got out of the car I could not wait to get to a location where I felt safe enough to smoke. I wouldn't do it out in front of anybody. I didn't want it to become public knowledge. I thought that was such a negative stigma toward smoking that I didn't need that drama in my life. So I tried my best to keep it within close friends and some close folks in the industry. I tried to hide that as much as I could and so it was something that I felt that I had control over. But in the long run when I got to that point in my life when I wanted to quit and be free from it, it had its hooks in me. And it was in control of me and I wasn't in control of it. That's why this is probably as important to me, it's a genuine story. I believe in this product. I know that if I had this product when I was trying to quit, it would have helped me in this process sooner. I could only imagine there's people like me out there struggling trying to find that assistance and find that tool to put in their toolbox to help them get this done and I'm sure we can make that happen for them.
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