For anyone who has ever turned 40, you know there are always a few moments that make you feel old.
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of those came during Jeff Gordon’s announcement that 2015 would be his last year driving full time in NASCAR’s top series.
Gordon is 43 years old. Dale Jr. is 40. They are friends and longtime rivals. And well before they became teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt admired the way Gordon could direct a race car. Earnhardt likens Gordon to a great quarterback.
“I was never really a 49ers fan,” Earnhardt said this week on the Charlotte Motor Speedway media tour. “But when Joe Montana was playing, you enjoyed watching him play. He played it with a grace and some poise and professionalism where you admired him on the field. Same way with Peyton Manning and these other guys. And when they retire, it’s weird, because you want them to go forever. You want them just to play and play and play.”
But that can’t happen. Earnhardt – who in February will go to Daytona to defend his 2014 Daytona 500 victory – knows it.
Said Earnhardt of Gordon’s impending retirement: “It makes you look in the mirror and say, ‘Man, this thing ain’t going to be there forever. It’s not going to last forever.’
“It sort of brings a reality to it – a reality check that we all aren’t going to be here, driving cars all our lives.”
Earnhardt is quick to note that Gordon has two kids he wants to spend more time with as well as some chronic back problems.
“I don’t have any back issues, and I don’t have any kids,” Earnhardt deadpanned. “So I don’t have any factors.”
Not yet, anyway. I asked Earnhardt if he thought he would drive a race car competitively until he was 50. (His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was age 49 when he died in a last-lap wreck at the 2001 Daytona 500.)
“Oh, I don’t know,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve never had more fun driving a race car than I have in the last five years. I didn’t even know I could have this much fun. Last year, I felt like a kid. I had the same feeling I had when I’d drive down to Myrtle Beach in my late model or go to Nashville with my late model. We were on top of the world, having so much fun. So that’s made me think I can do this a lot longer than I’d imagined.”
Earnhardt had his best year in a decade in 2014. After winning a combined four Sprint Cup races from 2005-2013, he won four in a single season last year. He contended all year for the overall championship before fading late and finishing eighth.
His 2015 season will have at least one major difference. Earnhardt is breaking in a new crew chief, Greg Ives, after a four-year partnership with crew chief Steve Letarte. Letarte left to become an NBC race analyst. Ives had a long previous history at Hendrick Motorsports – he was the race engineer for five of Jimmie Johnson’s championships – but he and Earnhardt will have to learn each others’ tendencies.
One thing Letarte did for Earnhardt was provide him with a constant stream of positive reinforcement. During bad times on the track, Earnhardt can sound very mopey and out of answers on his radio. Letarte knew that sometimes Earnhardt just needed a pat on the back, and especially early in their partnership would try to build his driver back up when Earnhardt would start sinking into one of his darker moods.
So what will NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past 12 years ask Ives to do first?
“I’m going to try to teach him how to cheerlead a little bit,” Earnhardt said jokingly. Later, though, he addressed the topic more seriously.
“I need to be a man enough and professional enough to not have to have a cheerleader,” Earnhardt said. “I need to be real self-conscious not to put the onus on Greg like, ‘Man, I’m beat down. You’re going to have to inflate me back up and get me excited and hopeful.’ I’ve got to be responsible for that myself as an adult.”
Unlike Gordon, Earnhardt has never won an overall championship at NASCAR’S highest level. Gordon has four of them.
“I’d love to win a championship,” said Earnhardt, who has won 23 individual races at the Sprint Cup level but has never finished higher than third in a season. “We try every year to win that championship. It’s either in the cards for me, or it’s not.”
Letarte helped teach Earnhardt how important it was to be at the track longer and to be more available to the crew so his input would more naturally flow into the car’s design. Earnhardt is hands-on enough that the other day when he and Ives were doing a photo shoot for Nationwide, Earnhardt decided the show car was set too high off the ground to look realistic. He and Ives adjusted it themselves on pit road.
Earnhardt got a laugh out of the situation when he realized how detail-oriented Ives can be.
“While we were doing that,” Earnhardt said, “Greg made a list of about 25 other things wrong with the show car and gave it to the guy who’s in control of our show car program. Greg is a details guy. That’s been really entertaining for me.”
It’s unclear how that sort of approach will work with Earnhardt – there are many times through his life he has not sweated the small stuff – but he is hoping for the best. Earnhardt is not sure how many years he’s got left. But after Gordon’s retirement, he hears the tick of the clock more often. The concessions he has made to age so far are modest, but they do exist.
“I haven’t had anything crop up that’s reminded me of how old I am,” Earnhardt said, “other than I can’t eat chicken wings and pizza every day like I used to. And I do have to work out to make sure I fit into the (fire)suit I wore last year. What I eat during the wintertime is important. During the season, the racing sort of eats the calories out of me. I don’t really have to work out too much. But I know the older I get, the harder it gets to stay the same size and the same weight. I know that for sure.”