Young Guns

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. not sure how to encourage young drivers to come out of shells

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For a long time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had three driving forces in his life.

Doritos, Mountain Dew and driving race cars.

“I just thought ‘I like racing. I want to drive. I don’t want to do nothing else. I want to go lay on the couch,'” Earnhardt said Friday at Kansas Speedway.

That was the mantra of a young man without too many responsibilities, who kept to himself and put highlights in his hair.

Now an older and much more outgoing Earnhardt – minus the highlights – is the face of NASCAR. At 42 and with 26 races left in his Cup career, he’s a constant presence on Twitter and has his own podcast network.

With the end of his full-time racing career in sight, the 14-time most popular driver was asked about his early days in relation to the personalities of the young drivers coming into the series.

“When I first started racing I didn’t want to do anything but drive,” Earnhardt said. “I hated doing appearances and photo shoots and all that. I just thought that was just so boring. I didn’t really understand how important they were or how critical they were or the marketing and the happiness of the partner. A lot of different things play in the role of maturing you.”

For Earnhardt, one ingredient was becoming owner of JR Motorsports and its Xfinity Series operation made up of four full-time cars.

“Owning Xfinity teams taught me a ton about what partners want and think and what they like and don’t like and what they need from the driver and from the owners,” Earnhardt said. “It certainly shaped my opinion and changed it on how I approach those things. I don’t think I was impossible, but there were days when I was hard to work with and hard to deal with.

“And, I didn’t want that reputation when I finished driving. I want people to say that I was fun to be with and fun to work with and that I came in with a great attitude and did a good job, whether a photo shoot or a commercial shoot or a meet & greet, or whatever. And, I didn’t care about that when I was younger. I didn’t think about those things. I just thought I like racing. I want to drive. I don’t want to do nothing else. I want to go lay on the couch and eat Doritos and drink Mountain Dew and drive race cars.”

Then in 2008, Earnhardt left the nest at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and joined Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt credits his relationships with Jimmie Johnson, owner Rick Hendrick and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller with beginning his growth into the person capable of giving a five-minute answer to almost any question.

“It just took me a long time to figure all that out,” Earnhardt said. “I just think being around Jimmie and Rick and my sister and people that have told me certain things time and time again, it starts to click and you realize the right way to be and to treat people and do things. I’m still not perfect. I’ve still got a lot of things I can do better.”

But it is 2017. As much as he may be entrenched with the NASCAR community and sponsors now, Earnhardt admits he’s not sure what to do to encourage millennial drivers to be themselves in the public eye.

“I don’t know how you get a guy, a young gun, to come out of his shell,” Earnhardt said. “There’s some guys that just don’t, or don’t want to.”

Earnhardt, who dragged his legs until he finally joined Twitter in 2014, can’t even convince Johnson to do his own podcast. Earnhardt credits Johnson with slowly chipping away at his resistance to Twitter.

“Jimmie has his limitations to what he wants to do,” Earnhardt said. “A lot of you know him well. And, the perception that we have of Jimmie as a person versus what a lot of people know is different. And that’s up to him. And, he wants it that way. I talk to him and say ‘Man, you ought to do a podcast.’ ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that. I just don’t want to do it.’ He’s like, ‘I have no interest.’ What he’s got going on as far as how much he exposes himself, that’s where he wants it. He doesn’t want to be more than he is to everyone. So, it really comes down to the driver just having that eagerness.”

Of all the drivers under 30, Earnhardt points to Ryan Blaney as being the ideal driver when it comes to be willing to do any and all things to grow his exposure. Blaney debuted his own podcast earlier this year.

“Blaney is incredibly eager,” Earnhardt said. “He loves going and doing new things. He’ll do any TV show, or whatever. The other guys are not quite that interested in it. They’re more focused on the car and driving and have worked so hard to get to this point and you know, ‘I don’t want to do all that other stuff, it doesn’t matter.’ But it matters, especially now. It’s changed tremendously as far as what sponsors will ask of you. The agreements to our sponsorships have changed incredibly as far as what our responsibilities are and what they need. And obviously, I say it all the time. Social media is a big draw. People want people who are active on social media. It’s changed a lot and you’ve got to change with it.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s departure will be first among group that changed NASCAR

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They walked on to the screen in unison, fresh-faced, eager and so young.

They were the ones who would rock NASCAR’s establishment.

Now, they are ones moving one step closer to walking away.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that he’ll retire after this NASCAR Cup season foreshadows how one of the sport’s greatest collection of drivers will soon leave the sport.

From 2000-02, NASCAR’s rookie classes included Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Earnhardt.

Through a marketing campaign with Gillette, they were billed as the Young Guns. But they earned much more in the careers — wins, championships and accolades.

The six drivers have combined to collect 10 of the last 14 Cup titles and won 228 races, which includes nine Daytona 500s, eight Coca-Cola 600s, six Brickyard 400s and four Southern 500s (Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s).

Sooner than later, they will follow Earnhardt out of the sport.

Matt Kenseth

The 2003 champion, who is 45 years old, is the logical choice to retire soon. When Joe Gibbs Racing announced a press conference recently that involved Kenseth, fans speculated it was a retirement announcement. It was a sponsor announcement instead.

“As long as you guys have known me, if I was going to do something like that, I wouldn’t call a press conference for it,’’ Kenseth told the media that day. “I probably just wouldn’t show up at Daytona and just everybody say, ‘Was Matt racing this week?’ Or I’d send out like a four-word tweet.’’

The Hall of Fame will beckon when he retires. Kenseth, rookie of the year in 2000, has 38 wins, two Daytona 500 victories, a Southern 500 win and a Coca-Cola 600 win.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

The seven-time champion’s contract expires after this season but he’s given no indication of retiring. His next contract likely will take him to 2019 or 2020 and be his final driving contract in the sport.

Johnson, 41, said last month that he expects to have a contract extension announced “before long.’’

He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection when he’s eligible. He scored his 82nd career Cup win Monday at Bristol. He has also won two Daytona 500s, four Coca-Cola 600s, four Brickyard 400s and 2 Southern 500s.

KEVIN HARVICK

The 2014 champion signed what the team called a “long-term” contract extension last year.

“I’m very happy to have my future secure with a team so dedicated to winning,’’ Harvick said at the time.

Another driver headed to the Hall of Fame after his driving career. Harvick, who is 41 years old, has 35 wins, which includes two Coca-Cola 600s and a Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 triumph. He also was the 2001 Rookie of the Year.

RYAN NEWMAN

His status was in question until signing a multi-year contract extension in October to remain at Richard Childress Racing.

The 39-year-old Newman won at Phoenix earlier this season. It was his 18th career Cup win. He has a Daytona 500 victory and a Brickyard 400 win. He has 51 poles, which ranks ninth on the all-time list. Newman beat Johnson to win the 2002 Rookie of the Year. Newman also likely will be a Hall of Fame selection after his career ends. 

KURT BUSCH

The youngest of the group at age 38. He won the Daytona 500 this year for his 29th career victory. The 2004 champion also has a Coca-Cola 600 win.

He likely will be the last of this group to retire and join them in the Hall of Fame. If he’s the last of this group to retire, he’ll close the chapter of a remarkable class.

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