BRISTOL, Tenn. – In his last Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has varied his line – and not just because of the new bottom-lane grip on the 0.533-mile oval.
When he leaves the track through the Turn 3 tunnel to walk to an adjacent motorhome lot, Earnhardt is making multiple stops along a fence where fans line up for driver autographs.
“Usually on a Bristol weekend, I’d walk that fence once, probably Saturday afternoon,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com. “But this year we’re walked it every day that we’ve been here, and there’ll be different people there each day because they know that’s where there is a great opportunity to get an autograph.
“Typically if you went through there once, that was good enough for you and your peace of mind individually. But this particular year, we’ll walk it every day, just so that if that makes a bit of an impression. That’s what you want.”
The 14-time most popular driver said he gladly has signed twice as many autographs during his final full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series, which he is marking with an “Appreci88on” campaign that kicked off two months ago.
With among the largest crowds of the season expected for Saturday’s Bristol Night Race, sponsor Mountain Dew has a major trackside presence via the DEW HQ/Outdoors campaign aimed at celebrating Earnhardt’s final season and love of the outdoors. A RideWithJr.com contest also is aiming to put 100,000 fans’ names on Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet for his last Monster Energy Cup Series start at Talladega Superspeedway in October.
Those initiatives, along with the track’s Thursday announcement of establishing an annual automotive scholarship in Earnhardt’s name for a high school student in the Bristol area, are what the Hendrick Motorsports driver deems the spirit of “Appreci88on” – honoring those who have supported him over the past two decades.
“I think that when the tracks are like ‘Man, thanks Dale!’ or they paint (stuff) in the infield … thank me, hell,” Earnhardt said. “Thank the fans. They’re the ones who bought your tickets, not me. I just came and drove and walked around and had fun.
“I really didn’t do a lot of legwork to make this fan base. It’s just being myself, and that came really easy.”
Earnhardt’s last lap around the circuit came under scrutiny recently when Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM Satellite Radio show that he was underwhelmed by the “vibe of Dale’s last year” as far as souvenir sales and tickets sold.
How does Earnhardt think the Appreci88n tour has gone?
Here’s what he told NBCSports.com in an interview inside his No. 88 hauler before qualifying Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway:
Q: With some questioning whether your farewell tour had garnered the traction that was anticipated, is it going as you’d hoped?
A: “It’s going as designed. We wanted as little attention on ourselves as possible and as much on the fans as possible. To (Harvick’s) point, I think if we were performing better, yeah, people would be coming out to see us run, cause they feel like, ‘Yeah, if we watch him, he might have a shot to win. I want to see him win.’ So he’s right about that. And I thought he was right about half the stuff he said, some of it was a little bit overboard.
“But our whole angle really wasn’t to put me on a pedestal and say, ‘Hey, it’s the last year! Come get some of this! Bow down!’ It was nothing like that. I’m not very comfortable with that anyway. The level of attention I get, I like to keep that at arm’s length anyway. But we felt like our mission, what would make me comfortable and the right thing to do would be to give the appreciation to who deserves it, and the fans were the obvious answer to me. That, to me, is going as planned.
“I think that half the people out there when they see ‘Appreci88on,’ they don’t really know for who. So we might could have done a little better job sort of spelling it out a little bit better for everyone. But yeah, the appreciation isn’t for me, it’s for Junior Nation.”
Q: How has it made you reflect on the fans you have?
A: “I know that a big chunk of it came with dad. I’ve never disagreed with the fact that my father’s success, his celebrity, certainly opened a ton of doors for me, got me a ton of race fans right out of the gate. And the story of being his son and racing, all that adds to it for sure.
“But I think we did a lot of things in the last 20 years to grow that fan base. Obviously I didn’t have this many fans when Dad died. We got a lot of fans, but we’ve grown it. I hear more people actually follow me who didn’t follow Dad or didn’t even know who Dad was. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know why that happened. What I keep hearing from people is we’re genuine, honest and our message is always pretty clear and straightforward, relatable, guy you want to have a beer with. So for whatever reason, that’s worked.
“The appreciation, that’s why we went that direction. It’s unorthodox, and the message is a little cloudy because it’s not what people expect. People expect in your final year, you’re going to stand up on a pedestal and wait for everyone to throw flowers at you or something. That’s not really (it). I’ve had enough appreciation for 10 men.”
Q: So your final trip around the circuit was never about collecting rocking chairs and other retirement gifts, in other words?
A: “I can say honestly watching Jeff (Gordon) and Tony (Stewart) go through (their final seasons) helped me sort of go ‘Whoa.’ Because I think watching them go through theirs, they weren’t anticipating any of that stuff. And you’d talk to Jeff, and he’d go, ‘Yeah, I don’t know why I got these horses. I don’t know what to do with these.’ We had those two guys to watch and get prepared on our end that maybe we should go this other angle, and try to safeguard against some of that stuff. Because I don’t need stuff piling up over at the house, pictures and things. It’s nice, and I appreciate the idea behind it.
“But what this track did here and what Sonoma did, those are awesome! I mean, damn! That’s really going to make a difference, or you hope. It has a great chance to do something good for somebody, way better than some photo I’m going to stick on the damn top of my storage that I’m never going to hang anywhere.”
Q: So the criteria or measuring stick for success is different than others who might be looking at T-shirts or tickets sold?
A:”I don’t know how many T-shirts I would have sold had I retired last year, you know? I don’t know whether I agree 100%, and I don’t even know what the numbers are.”
Q: You haven’t looked at how well your stuff has sold this year, right?
A: “Hell no! I don’t even know who to ask. But I’ve heard that there wasn’t a big spike in attendance for Jeff and Tony, and I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter. It’s not a competition. (Pause) But yeah, 100% if we’d run better, it would have been a lot rosier.”
Q: Is there anything else you can do for fans beyond producing better results?
A: “I haven’t counted, but I think I’ve signed twice as many autographs up to this point in the season than I usually sign, because that’s the theme. If we’re really showing appreciation, let’s spend a couple of more minutes over here and a couple more minutes over there. We’ve got some other ideas. We want to do some things in the offseason.
“Whatever we do, it’s going to be really hard to reach everybody. But we’ve thought about some things that we can do. Like Mark Martin has this fan day (at his dealership in Batesville, Arkansas), and it’s freaking awesome. I was looking at the results from that last year. It’s been going on for a while, and fans love it. They continue to come. They have a great experience. I’m thinking about something similar to that, that is an annual event that’s for them and just cater to them all day long, and they get an enjoyable experience.
“Dad had something similar to that. He had an open house at his dealership, which was his way to kind of say, ‘Hey fans, I’m going to be here all day. And I’ll be here from noon until fricking midnight. However long it takes to sign for everybody.’ And he would. He’d sign for seven to eight hours straight. We were sitting over there beside him going “Golly. When is this going to end?” And he would just go and go until everyone was happy. That was one day a year he went all out. So that’s something I’d be happy or comfortable doing, maybe put something together. I’ve talked to the Hall of Fame about doing something there maybe. Because that would bring a lot of folks to the Hall of Fame, and it’s local, so that would be kind of cool. That’s something we’ve been bouncing around.
“Aside from that, all you can do is try to interact with everybody at the racetrack. You take a little more time instead of bee lining from the car to the hauler or the haulers to the bus. You’re casual about it. Sign for everybody and try to get everybody you can at the racetrack and on race weekends. Because there’s a lot more people, I don’t know about the numbers in the grandstands, but damn sure there are a lot more people wanting autographs this year. Around the garage Friday and Saturday, it’s ramped way up.”
Q: And the vibe you get from your fans is that they like how things are going, all things considered?
A: “It seems like people are fine. Not everyone’s last year is going to be as successful as Jeff’s. I’ve looked at other drivers’ careers and their final seasons, and there are a lot of big names that didn’t have awesome years as they wound down. I knew that I was up against a pretty difficult challenge when I decided to come back. But I knew that the team was strong. If we could get it going, we’d get it going. We didn’t going, at least not yet, but we’re just weathering through it (laughs) trying not to damn self-destruct or explode or turn it into a bad thing.
“Racing can bring the worst out of you. Your worst personality, attitude. Your worst habits. Bristol is the track that’s worst for me. It makes me want to go (expletive) bonkers on everybody, and I know that ain’t going to get us nowhere and just get us pissed off. So I’m safeguarding against that a little bit. Hopefully get in the playoffs and come to a couple of tracks we ran good at early in the season (such as) Texas. See if we can’t get a couple of good runs.”