Dale Earnhardt Jr. burst onto the broadcasting scene a year ago at Chicagoland Speedway, not knowing he would end up coining his own catchphrase during his debut.
As Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson bumped and battled through the final lap, one voice — Earnhardt’s — yelled in the booth, “Slide job! Slide job!” That memorable moment remained at the forefront of NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage for the remainder of the season.
The Kannapolis native returns to the broadcast booth Sunday when NBC kicks off its part of the NASCAR season with the Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
“When I was hollering ‘slide job,’ I was yelling it at Rick Allen,” Earnhardt said of NBC’s race announcer. “I wasn’t talking to the audience... That moment I’m hollering at Rick, ‘Hey, here comes a slide job.’ Rick is tasked with calling the final lap of the race. I was just like, ‘Hey, buddy, look what I see, this is what I see.’”
Earnhardt credits Allen, former crew chief Steve Letarte and retired NASCAR driver Jeff Burton for helping him get that comfortable that quickly in the booth a year ago.
“I’m really a bit shy and a bit of an introvert, to be honest,” Earnhardt said. “They worked really hard as a group of three guys to help me get comfortable as fast as I could. We had a lot of mock broadcasts last year that helped me a ton.”
However, don’t be fooled by his debut. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
“I remember one race in particular, Pocono,” Earnhardt said. “In the first stage we got done, I told them, I said, ‘I was awful. I couldn’t figure out when to speak.’”
Their advice? Be aggressive.
“We’re not going to hold your hand here, stop talking so you can come in here and say what you need to say,” said Earnhardt, recalling his partners’ advice. “You have to work your way into this conversation, be aggressive. You’re not going to step on anybody’s toes, bother anybody.”
Earnhardt learned to interject himself in the conversation. He relied on his knowledge of the sport to prepare, and over time, the work became easier for him.
“You got to understand what’s been happening this year, what’s been going on on the race track, who’s been good, who’s not been good, what’s different from last year as far as performance across the teams and drivers,” Earnhardt said. “You just get in there and react naturally and genuinely to what’s going on, what you’re seeing.”
Although Sunday’s Cup race will be the first time Earnhardt has been in the NASCAR booth this season, he has been in stressful situations, like the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500 in May, during his time off that prepared him to “roll with the punches,” he said.
“I’d never been to either of those events,” Earnhardt said. “Was not that entirely educated about horse racing or even some subparts and sections of the Indy 500 world... NBC has never put me in a position to fail, but I certainly had to think on my feet a lot in those moments.
“To come out of there in one piece gave me a lot of confidence going into this season.”
Sam Flood, NBC executive producer, credited Earnhardt’s podcast — the Dale Jr. Download — as part of why Earnhardt has quickly acclimated as a racing analyst.
“What he’s done this year, the evolution of that show ... the interviews he’s doing, the guests he’s had on,” Flood said, “it’s just another step in a career that’s been so much fun to watch as he evolves into a real broadcaster that can go well beyond the racing world.”
For Earnhardt, confidence is everything — and he’s ready to tackle Season 2.
“If I’ve got confidence, that’s half of the battle,” Earnhardt said.