The main thing Dale Earnhardt Jr. is focused on ahead of his weekend debut as a NASCAR television analyst?
As simple as it sounds, just being himself.
And for good reason. Earnhardt, the 15-time winner of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award, oozes natural charm and personality. After retiring from full-time racing in November (after 19 years in the Cup Series), now his job is to hone that effortless charisma as part of NBC's NASCAR coverage.
"The best part about it is that (NBC Sports Group executive producer) Sam Flood says 'just be yourself,'" Earnhardt said via a conference call Thursday, "and I keep asking him if that’s really what he wants, because that sounds a little bit too good to be true and a little bit too easy.
"But that’s what they expect out of you, and that should be very fun, to get up there and just watch races and react."
When Earnhardt announced his retirement from NASCAR in April 2017, it came as both a shock to the public and a step toward the rest of his life. Earnhardt was — is — revered by NASCAR fans, but the timing for him to move to other endeavors only made sense. In addition to struggling with concussions (which forced him to miss half of the 2016 season), he had recently married. And this April, he and his wife, Amy, gave birth to their first child, Isla Rose Earnhardt.
Now Earnhardt has a new career to balance, too.
"It’s been really smooth so far. You know, no big holdups or speed bumps or no real huge surprises," Earnhardt said of the transition to his new job. "It’s been a lot of fun, really. ... I feel like I retired and haven’t even started working again. It’s pretty surreal."
Earnhardt will join a trio of familiar faces in the NBC booth: the network's lead NASCAR personality, Rick Allen; former Cup Series driver Jeff Burton; and Earnhardt's own former crew chief, Steve Letarte (who will also operate from pit road as part of the network's new Peacock Pit Box). But still, how has Earnhardt, with no broadcast experience, prepared for his debut race weekend at Chicagoland Speedway?
First, by being thrown right into things. Earnhardt spent time in South Korea for the Olympics and in Minnesota for the Super Bowl as part of his NBC "initiation." Those experiences, while brief, gave Earnhardt an introduction to how television broadcasts work and what standards his new employer holds.
Next, he had actual NASCAR-related practice. The entire NBC crew did two mock broadcasts — for races at Texas and Talladega — out of the radio booth at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Then, during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, the group completed another mock show from a suite above the track.
Earnhardt said the benefits of those mock broadcasts, aside from the feedback he received, were significant.
"I was really nervous about going in cold turkey without really a whole lot of experience, and so it gave me a lot of peace of mind," Earnhardt said of the practice broadcasts. "It allowed me to build a little bit of a rapport with Jeff and Rick because we’re going to need that chemistry. It helped me kind of understand what their jobs are and where I fit in there and what I’m going to be asked to do.
"Also, I guess — I still got the job, so NBC is pretty happy with what they heard in our practice runs."
The interesting thing to monitor, other than Earnhardt's performance, will be how the addition of the retired star impacts NBC's overall NASCAR television ratings. The ratings for NASCAR broadcasts (by all networks, not solely NBC) have been in a well-documented decline for several years, due to competition for viewers and other related factors. Could the star power of Dale Earnhardt Jr. reverse that trend, even if only marginally?
Perhaps, although it's not something the network is concerned about, Flood said.
"I can only say, being cautiously optimistic, that people want to hang out with Dale," Flood said. "But I don’t put the ratings on Dale; I put it on all of us to make it happen."
With Sunday's race fast approaching, Earnhardt's time for prepping and practice has all but vanished. All there is left to do is put on his Sunday suit — not the fire version he donned the past 19 years, but one cut by Ralph Lauren or Burberry — and hop in the booth for real.
Only then will Earnhardt know how he stacks up as a broadcaster, and only then will he be able to tell if he truly enjoys his new career.
But if his practice and experiences this spring are to be believed? Well, then neither issue should be a factor.
"I feel very confident about the direction of the sport and the health of the sport and the future," Earnhardt said, "or I wouldn’t be in this position and want to be part of this team. I’m excited about where we’re going and where we’re headed.
"I think we’re going up, and I want to be on that ride."