Scott Fowler

Dale Jr. on all-star race, 600, and what his Dad would think about today’s competitors

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Thursday following an announcement that Maaco was partnering with Axalta to sponsor Earnhardt Jr.'s final NASCAR All-Star race car.
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Thursday following an announcement that Maaco was partnering with Axalta to sponsor Earnhardt Jr.'s final NASCAR All-Star race car. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. practiced his burnout Thursday afternoon in a parking lot at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and it was quite a sensory overload from 20 yards away: Rubber burning, tires squealing, smoke rising in a white cloud.

Earnhardt would like to use that technique for real sometime in the two weekends, celebrating what would be the first win of his final season as a racer.

Earnhardt has had a disappointing season so far, with only one top-10 finish in 11 races. His most notable moment came when he announced his impending retirement in April. He sits 25th in the Monster Energy standings and may well need to win a points race to make the playoffs.

Earnhardt was in that CMS parking lot Thursday to unveil the No. 88 Axalta/Maaco Chevrolet he will drive Saturday night in NASCAR’s annual all-star race. Earnhardt answered a number of questions from the media while making that appearance. Some excerpts:

Q: You’ve won the all-star race once, as a Cup rookie in 2000. What do you remember about that?

A: I personally felt we were lucky to be in the race. It never crossed my mind: ‘What do we gotta do to win?’ It’s just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m in it! I couldn’t get over that. … I remember passing Dad in the last stage. I remember running down (Dale) Jarrett, him smoking a little bit, passing him on the outside. … I remember seeing Dad in Victory Lane, taking pictures with him up on that stage, going: “Man, can you believe this? Because I can’t believe this.” He’d been to Victory Lane so many damn times, and he was just standing there smiling, taking his pictures.

Q: What would it mean for you to win the Coca-Cola 600 on May 28?

A: I’d love that. It’s an iconic event, It’s 600 miles and my first race was at Charlotte in the Cup series. And I grew up around here, very close to this place. … All my buddies lived over at (some nearby apartments). I’d come home from the Xfinity series, we’d drink beer at the apartments and then we’d sneak over to the track. We’d bust into the track and hotwire the golf carts. … Until we saw headlights, and then we’d take off.

Q: Saturday night’s all-star race includes an option to use four “soft” tires at some point in the race to theoretically provide more speed compared to other drivers on “hard” tires. How will that change things?

A: The all-star race really doesn’t have any ramifications (because it is a non-points race). … So you can try out anything you want to try. … As far as the softer tire, hard-core fans like that piece of strategy. … It’s not probably the best scenario, because the track is pretty fast at night. They did such a great job paving (the track) that it’s not really aged well. So it still has a ton of grip. A hard tire will be comparable to a soft tire late at night.

Q: You are obviously close with a lot of the other current drivers. Would your father have agreed with that sort of thing?

A: Dad had his friends. Dad hung out with Neil (Bonnett). … He was friends with Rusty (Wallace) and then they would fight on the racetrack. … Dad and (Tim) Richmond hung out a lot on the lake. They were friends. That was funny, because they were complete opposites. … But they wouldn’t talk at the track. They wouldn’t hang out at all. Whereas we do. We hang out at the track, get together, BS, the kids like each other, the wives talk. We sometimes ride bikes before the race. I think it would all be a little too chummy for Dad.

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