Dale Earnhardt Jr shares some of his favorite memories as his NASCAR racing career draws to an end
His message? Simple: Fun fun fun!
Now, that might not seem like any sort of profound wisdom, but considering the sender, the timing, the context ... well, when you take everything into consideration, Earnhardt's quick little text does signal something more significant.
Sunday was Earnhardt's debut as a NASCAR television analyst for NBC (or at least it technically was — Earnhardt had been in the booth for multiple practices and also Saturday's Xfinity Series race). But Sunday was still the real deal. Sunday, Earnhardt had to hold his own among seasoned professionals during a live Cup Series race for the first time.
So instead of just watching the race like I normally do Sunday, this week I paid special attention to Earnhardt. Every story he told, every joke he made, every line of analysis he offered — it was my main focus, trying to determine how he was and how he could be better, but also how his arrival impacts NASCAR overall.
About 15 minutes before engines fired, Earnhardt told his fellow broadcaster and former crew chief, Steve Letarte, that he had "healthy" nerves. Good — to me, that signaled Earnhardt was taking this whole thing seriously. Not that anyone ever doubted he would, but in essence, this was a live job interview. Nerves are healthy, and they mean you're committed.
But as the race began, those nerves never really manifested themselves — or if they did, kudos to Earnhardt for swallowing them. From the get-go, it was apparent Earnhardt had done his homework. He studied his former peers, knew their statistics and tendencies from this season. But he also had an obvious advantage over his fellow analysts: his inherent knowledge of these drivers, most of whom he has competed against for parts of the past 19 years.
The most glaring comparison that came to mind was Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who retired after the 2016-17 NFL season to become a broadcaster. Romo instantly became one of the more celebrated football analysts not only for his charisma, but for his vast knowledge of the specific plays and strategies that different teams liked to run. Romo could look at a formation on offense, even for teams other than the Cowboys, and know specifically which plays were called before the offense ran them.
That is the sort of knowledge only a highly intelligent, recently retired athlete can have. Romo has it, clearly.
So does Dale Jr.
But more than just that knowledge, both Romo and Earnhardt have likeability about them that makes them perfect for television. You can imagine yourself on the couch or at the bar, next to them, watching while they're pointing at the screen and yelling what's about to come next. It's entrancing.
For example: at one point during Stage One, Earnhardt said a particular bump on the track was like, "driving off a set of stairs." Now how could anyone else in that booth —or in any NASCAR booth — know that, let alone describe it in a way that even non-fans can understand? It was the perfect example of the insight and colloquialism that Earnhardt brings to a broadcast.
Now, Earnhardt wasn't perfect in his first full go-round, but not because of any faults in terms of his announcing. But there were periods, primarily in the first stage, where it felt like he disappeared from the conversation. There's a whole crew of reporters and analysts juggling air time, and I understand not wanting to overwork or intimidate your newest contributor, but let him talk, right? Maybe that's understandable if Earnhardt had been struggling, but he certainly wasn't, and it was strange to hear him go missing for some time.
Another highlight for Earnhardt, and what may have been the toughest thing for him to do Sunday, was criticize his former teammates. Earnhardt's many years at Hendrick Motorsports alongside Jimmie Johnson made them terrific friends, but when Johnson was in danger of falling behind a lap, Earnhardt accurately called it out. It may not seem like much, but imagine telling your close friend at work that they're not doing a great job — that's essentially what Earnhardt had to do. It was impressive to see his impartiality so soon.
Still, none of that was the most encouraging part of Junior's debut. It was actually something much simpler.
As the race wore on and eventually came to its thrilling conclusion (Kyle Busch narrowly edged Kyle Larson on the last lap by nudging him), you could hear the palpable enthusiasm in Dale's voice. The higher pitch, talking faster and faster. You didn't need to see him smiling to know he was — you could hear it.
And why is that — that Dale Jr. thoroughly and honestly enjoyed his first big-time broadcast — so important?
Because it proves he didn't make a mistake in retiring from NASCAR. Look, with a new wife and a child on the way, Earnhardt was clearly trending towards retirement. He wanted a family and a place to settle down after all those 36-week-travel-years. Nothing was going to change that.
But in broadcasting, now Earnhardt can finally feel completely comfortable and confident in his decision. Earnhardt has long said he wants to remain involved with NASCAR post-retirement. That makes sense. He drove cars for his entire adult life, and as the 15-time winner of the sport's Most Popular Driver award, he truly became an ambassador for NASCAR. Of course he didn't want to just walk away.
In this new career, though, he's found a perfect outlet. He can still be at the track on weekends without dedicating his life to NASCAR. He can still be an "asset to the sport," as he said after Sunday's race. He can still help NASCAR draw new fans and interest, especially during such a tumultuous time for the sport.
But most of all, he can have the post-racing life he so desires and so deserves. Earnhardt has done everything he can for NASCAR and more, and after giving so much of himself to the sport, he has earned the right to be involved on his own terms. He's also earned the right to have a family and slowly transition out of the public eye, if he so desires.
For now though, it's pretty obvious where Dale Jr. wants to be. Just listen to his final remarks after his debut race.
"It felt so good just to be here."