Scott Fowler

Exclusive: Dale Earnhardt Jr. on racing, marriage and the latest Earnhardt family feud

NASCAR Sprint Cup series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is closer to the end of his racing career than the beginning, but he has a good idea what comes next, with or without a title.
NASCAR Sprint Cup series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is closer to the end of his racing career than the beginning, but he has a good idea what comes next, with or without a title.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 41 years old now – just eight years younger than his father was when Dale Sr. died at the Daytona 500 in 2001. Dale Jr. enters Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 closer to the end of his career than the beginning, thinking not only about winning races but also about his impending marriage to Amy Reimann.

Earnhardt Jr. long ago climbed out from under his father’s enormous shadow. He has won 26 races in stock-car racing’s top series and has been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR for 13 years in a row. He is also one of the signature voices in his sport, unafraid to take a public stand against the sport’s rulers or against his own stepmother.

During our exclusive interview Thursday, he took his half-brother Kerry Earnhardt’s side in Kerry’s ongoing legal dispute with Teresa Earnhardt about the usage of the Earnhardt surname for business purposes.

“Obviously, I’m in support of my brother,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

In 2000, Earnhardt Jr. won NASCAR’s all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his rookie season at the sport’s top level. But he has never won a Sprint Cup points race at CMS and will try to do so once again Sunday night in the longest NASCAR race of the season.

“I’d like to get a win here in a points race,” Earnhardt said as we stood inside his No. 88 hauler at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We won the all-star race when I was a rookie, but I haven’t won a big race here. It’d be awesome to do that since it’s our local track.”

Earnhardt has all sorts of things on his mind these days. Here are three I found particularly interesting during our chat.

An offseason wedding

While his father had been married three times by the time he was 31, Earnhardt Jr. has been a lifelong bachelor. That will change sometime after Nov. 20, when the 2016 NASCAR season ends. Earnhardt and his fiancee, Amy Reimann, have been engaged for almost a year (and together for much longer than that). They are planning their wedding, likely within a few weeks of the season finale.

The exact place and time? Given Earnhardt’s popularity, he understandably would rather not divulge it.

“It’s never really far away from your mind, I guess,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his impending wedding. “The planning stage is kind of kicking into gear. It’s all really new to me, so I don’t really know what to expect and what comes tomorrow. But I’m excited about it.”

At one point, the couple had thought about getting married during an off weekend in the middle of the 2016 season. But Dale Jr. worried that NASCAR’s schedule changes so often that he might behave to celebrate his wedding anniversary on a race weekend within a year or two. Plus, he has a hard time letting go of his job during the season.

“You can’t really unplug from what you’re doing when you take the racing so seriously,” Earnhardt said. “During the offseason will be a great opportunity to celebrate, because I won’t be worried about racing, racecars or what happened the week before.”

Not long after getting married, Earnhardt Jr. said he hopes he and Amy have children.

“Absolutely, yeah, I do,” Earnhardt said. “It’s frightening to imagine. ... But having a child and raising a child would probably the coolest accomplishment and proudest thing you could do. I’ve never done it, but just knowing my nieces and nephews and what my friends say? It has to be a blast.”

The latest Earnhardt family feud

Dale Jr. is not happy with his stepmother – again.

Earnhardt told me he was siding with his half-brother over his stepmother in a legal dispute. The issue: Whether Kerry Earnhardt can use his last name to market homes that he and his wife, Rene, helped design as part of a series of houses to be built by Schumacher Homes.

Kerry Earnhardt plans to call the homes “The Earnhardt Collection.” Teresa Earnhardt – Kerry and Dale’s stepmother and the widow of Dale Earnhardt Sr. – doesn’t want that name used because she believes it could be confused as an endorsement or sponsorship of the homes by the estate of her late husband.

A legal fight has dragged on for several years about this. Teresa Earnhardt’s lawyers recently filed an appeal in federal court after a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruling denied Teresa Earnhardt’s challenge to the “Earnhardt Collection” trademark that had been applied for by Kerry Earnhardt.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that Kerry deserves to be able to use his last name on the line of homes.

“This is a business venture that he’s put a lot of effort and heart and soul in that I think he deserves,” Dale Jr. said of Kerry. “So in this particular case, I side with my brother and his belief to be able to use the name as is – without any alterations or changes.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. was 49 when he was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. Kerry Earnhardt was the only child of Dale Earnhardt Sr. from his first marriage. Dale Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller were Dale Sr.’s two children by his second marriage. Teresa, Dale Sr.’s third wife, married him in 1982 and later bore him his fourth child, a daughter named Taylor.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. had not publicly weighed in on the dispute until our interview, his sister Kelley had already tweeted her support for Kerry. On May 6, she wrote on Twitter: “Hate that my brother & family have to deal w/ this nonsense for over 4 yrs. It’s our name too! We were born w/ it!”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had an occasionally frosty relationship with his stepmother for many years. He told me in another one-on-one interview we did in 2006 – back when Teresa Earnhardt still owned the car he drove – that sometimes he wished he didn’t share his father’s name because of all the drama involved in trying to gain the rights to it.

“If I didn’t have the same name – and I kind of wish I didn’t sometimes – I wouldn’t have to be worrying about it,” he said then.

In 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to leave the race team that Teresa Earnhardt ran and that his late father had started before his death – Dale Earnhardt Inc., or DEI.

Earnhardt Jr. has driven since 2008 for Hendrick Motorsports. In terms of fielding race teams, DEI no longer exists.

Still searching for a title

While Earnhardt has always raced hard and sometimes gets mopey or frustrated when things aren’t going well on the track, he has never taken himself too seriously. He once told me he liked Barry Manilow records. He loved the quirky humor of “The Office.” This is the way he presents his biography on Twitter, where he has 1.47 million followers: “Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster.”

This season has been a mixed bag for Earnhardt. He has not won a race yet, but he has finished second three times. He also has three finishes of 32nd or worse because of crashes and ranks a modest 11th in points a third of the way through the NASCAR season.

Make no mistake, Earnhardt Jr. wants to win a championship before he retires – his late father won seven of them. But he said it won’t haunt him if he doesn’t win one. When I asked him if he saw the lack of a championship as a hole in his life, he thought about it for a few seconds before answering.

“It’s hard to answer that question because I’m still in the seat, still in search of a championship,” Earnhardt said. “So if I were to tell you today that it wouldn’t matter to me, would that give my fans the opinion that it doesn’t matter today?

“So I have to give you an answer that it matters – today – more than anything. All these guys on this team want to win the championship. When I get in this car every week, it’s to win a championship.”

But Earnhardt said his driving contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires after the 2017 season and he’s not sure what he will do after that. Said Earnhardt: “I don’t know how long I’ll run. ... I’ve got a contract to run next year and that’s the extent of it right now.”

And once he retires from driving and settles down with his wife and their proposed “Junior Jr.’s,” he knows he will be happy regardless.

“When I’m done driving, it won’t matter one way or the other,” Earnhardt said. “Physically driving the cars is a fraction of my life, and what defines me as Dale Jr., and what that means. If I were to finish my career without a title, I would certainly be disappointed. But I don’t think it would be something that would eat away at me. ... I think I certainly would be able to live with it.”

600 miles of Remembrance

Like every racecar in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car will bear the name of a fallen service member on the windshield as part of the “600 Miles of Remembrance” program.

On Memorial Day weekend, Aaron Reed’s name will grace Earnhardt’s No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet. In 2005, Reed was a 21-year-old lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. From Ohio, Reed was killed in action in Iraq by an improvised explosive device, or IED. Some of Reed’s family and friends will be guests at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday.

Said Earnhardt of the program: “I think it’s great for the families. ... We get all the families of those servicemen and women out to the racetrack so they can be part of the experience. NASCAR has always done a lot to acknowledge and honor the military and this is probably the biggest weekend for us in that regard.”