Scott Fowler

Dale Jr. Unplugged: Earnhardt’s exclusive interview on eve of Coke 600

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been good with the engines revving and the cars flying, when machines and men come together to create a circus of thunderous beauty.

But Dale Jr. is also really good when it’s quiet. I have rarely met an athlete more introspective or likable. There are a lot of reasons why he’s been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver the past 14 years in a row. And while those reasons certainly began with the racer he was named for, “Junior” long ago became his own man and forged his own path.

Now 42 and newly married, Earnhardt announced in April he was retiring at the end of this season. The racer granted me an exclusive interview recently on the eve of the Coca-Cola 600. We talked after a practice session at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Call it Dale Jr. Unplugged.

Earnhardt spoke about his impending retirement, why he will donate his brain to science and his famous father. He also answered the one question he said he had never been asked by anyone before.

Why does the Coca-Cola 600 mean so much to Earnhardt and his family?

Earnhardt said that if he were to win only one race in his final regular season as a Cup driver, he would want it to be the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He has never won that particular race, one of NASCAR’s most iconic.

“I grew up around here,” Earnhardt said by way of explaining why the 600 is so important to him. “My granddaddy Robert Gee’s house was 200 yards off the Turn 1 corner (in a home Darrell Waltrip now owns). So I spent a lot of time in the area as a kid. This was the home track for Dad, and the home track for me.”

Earnhardt, in fact, told a story last week about breaking into Charlotte Motor Speedway occasionally about 20 years ago with some of his friends, hot-wiring golf carts and then riding them all over the infield. When they saw headlights heading toward them, they would all scatter. So he actually drove under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway long before he made the field for CMS points races there.

What will Dale Jr. do to replace the adrenaline rush of racing once he retires?

“I don’t know if I’ve got to replace it,” Dale Jr. said when I asked this question, and with this answer he sounded very much like a man ready to retire. “It’s just something I did in my life. It’s not really who I am.”

Earnhardt said in some ways it would be a relief not to have to build himself up to an emotional peak as he does on every race weekend. Said the driver: “I really am looking forward to not having the adrenalin rush every week. … These seasons are long, and it’s been a lot of years. It’s been a long time. And I know 42 or 43 is not old as far as drivers go. But for me, it’s been a long, long time.”

So what would a perfect day in retirement look like for you?

“It’d be hard to fit everything into one day,” Earnhardt said. “Spending time with Amy, spending time with my family, working at JR Motorsports… Building my businesses outside of racing, working on my foundation, working on the (Dale Earnhardt Jr. car) dealerships down in Tallahassee, working on Whisky River…. We’ve got our plate pretty full.”

Would Dale Earnhardt Sr. have been able to get a job driving a Cup car today?

Here was the question that Earnhardt said he had never considered before, and the one that made him pause the longest in our interview.

I asked him if his father Dale Earnhardt Sr. – a ninth-grade dropout, rough around the edges, politically incorrect and incredibly talented – could have ever gotten a job driving a race car given the corporate, smooth-talking, sponsor-schmoozing demands of a Monster Energy Cup driver today.

“That’s a good damn question,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve never been asked that question before.”

He then paused 10 seconds, thinking about it awhile longer, and then said this:

“If Kyle Larson can do it the old-fashioned way, on pure talent – you know he don’t have a pocketbook – I think anybody can. I think Dad would certainly have had opportunities to have cleaned up his edge a little bit. Not so much his on-track persona – nobody wanted him to do anything different there. But these days he would have had more tools at his fingertips to help himself be a bit more marketable to sponsors.

“But anyway, there are people who want that kind of guy. He might not have had to change a thing. I have to believe, though, that a guy who just has a lot of talent can still make it out here.”

Why won’t Earnhardt’s own name be atop his No. 88 car Sunday?

On Sunday during the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR will salute those who have served our country in a very visible way. Each driver will bear the name of a fallen U.S.military member on his windshield header.

In the case of Dale Jr., this “600 Miles of Remembrance” tribute will also include a patriotic paint scheme for his No. 88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet.

The name on Earnhardt’s car will be that of James McClamrock of Concord, who was 22 years old and an Army private when he was shot and killed in Iraq in 2010.

McClamrock had graduated from South Iredell High, where he lettered in soccer, football and tennis. He and his young wife had looked forward to starting a family of their own in North Carolina. McClamrock once worked as a baggage handler and security screener at Charlotte’s airport, and watching soldiers go off to war had helped to inspire him to want to do the same.

Susan McClamrock, James’ mother, said in a phone interview that the family is very grateful that Earnhardt will help them tell PFC McClamrock’s story this week. Many family members will also be guests of Earnhardt and his sponsor, Nationwide Insurance, at Charlotte Motor Speedway at the race.

Said Susan McClamrock: “I don’t know Dale Earnhardt Jr. well, but I do know this is his last 600. And instead of having his own name on top of the car, he will have my son’s name on there…. That is so significant. For gold-star families like us (who have had a close family member die during a war), we never want the lives of our children to be forgotten. As long as we keep talking about them and sharing our memories of them, they never truly die.”

Said Earnhardt: “I think these families appreciate that their sons and daughters and relatives are remembered and acknowledged. ... Sunday is really their day. It gives fans an opportunity to know who these people were. We’re racing for them, to honor them. I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Why Dale Jr. said ‘I don’t know if I can say today is one of my happiest days’

Lest you think Earnhardt’s poor results this season mean he is just going through the motions as retirement approaches, let me disabuse you of that notion.

Dale Jr. was ticked off when we talked and obviously had to gather himself to do this interview at all.

The reason? He had just had a practice session for NASCAR’s All-Star Race and it had gone horribly, in his estimation. (The all-star race itself would go no better the next night, with Earnhardt having what he would later call an “embarrassing” run and finishing 18th. Earnhardt will start 19th in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.).

I asked Earnhardt about previous interviews – in which he had said he was a much more selfish person in his 20s and had become more giving – and happier – in his 40s with the help of his wife, Amy. The two were married on New Year’s Eve after living together for several years on Earnhardt’s property in the Mooresville area.

“I’d like to say I am,” Earnhardt said, “but I don’t know if I can say today is one of my happiest days. The car was awful when we started practicing. So I’m pretty fired up. I guess there’s good and bad about that. I’m still competitive…. And aside from today, I try not to let that kind of stuff get to me like it used to. I did let my job sort of dictate my attitude all the time.

“I was a bit hard to deal with sometimes. Hard to be around. I think I’ve gotten better at that, but I really don’t know. I think that I certainly am happier about being married, being with Amy, how I’ve got everything going in my personal life. It’s a pleasant surprise how things have gone outside of my racing career as far as the businesses we’ve tried to create….. But I get mad at myself (on the track). I get p----- off. … I just want to run good. I think we can. And I think we should.”

Would Dale Earnhardt Sr. have embraced Twitter and the social media age?

With more than two million followers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been quite a draw on Twitter ever since he finally joined the social media platform following his Daytona 500 victory in 2014.

Would Dale Earnhardt Sr. have done the same thing?

“No, no,” Dale Jr. said. “He hated computers. I remember when I was 15 years old and the biggest NASCAR racing game ever had just come out. There had never been anything like it. All my buddies were playing, but you had to have a computer to play.

“I didn’t have a computer, and how was I going to get a computer? They were about 500 bucks. So I begged him. He said, ‘I don’t like computers, and you don’t need that in your life.’ So I went to Kelley (Earnhardt’s older sister, with whom he has always been close). She and I went to Best Buy, and she put it on her credit. I paid her back – 100 dollars a month.

“But Dad, he wasn’t too into technology. … He was a racer and he worked with racers, and trying to fit technology into your everyday life, accepting all that, maybe he wasn’t quite as open to that.

“He wouldn’t like Twitter. He wouldn’t like social media. … And I bet he still probably wouldn’t have his own laptop.”

Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. so intent on donating his brain to science when he dies?

Earnhardt has had multiple concussions during his career. He missed the entire second half of the 2016 season because of the repercussions from one of them.

Even before that concussion, Earnhardt had written on Twitter in early 2016 that he planned to donate his brain to a leading research center so it can be studied and hopefully advance the fight against brain injury, particularly in athletes.

I asked him why he felt led to make that public pronouncement.

“Even though they have learned a lot, there’s just so much they don’t know,” Earnhardt said of doctors who are researching concussions. “Some of the real hard evidence is going to be in the brains of these athletes.

“Auto racing is different discipline compared to football, and so our head injuries give physicians a different point of view. ... I was an organ donor anyway. And I was thinking if I’m going to be a donor – if somebody needs some of my guts – why not let them have the whole thing?

“If there is a way for doctors to help people not have to deal with the sorts of things I have had to deal with it, then, man, I’m all for that,” Earnhardt continued. “Anything they can do to try to prevent the long-term effects. ... If they can learn some things to give people a better quality of life down the road into their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, then that would be awesome.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler