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Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up on why he hid his smoking and how he quit

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For the first 15 years or so of his high-profile NASCAR career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a secret that he kept from fans, media and sponsors.

But most importantly he kept it from his father.

There had been times that Dale Earnhardt had entered his son’s house unannounced and seen the ashtrays full of cigarette butts.

And while his mother, uncle and grandparents also indulged in smoking, Earnhardt’s seven-time champion father didn’t, nor did he approve of it.

“When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be smoking except for dad for whatever reason. He just never did,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBCSports.com in a phone interview Tuesday morning during a round of media appearances in which he spoke about his former habit in-depth publicly for the first time. “He knew I did, and I never, ever would have let him see me holding a cigarette. He hated it. We never had a conversation about it. He might have said a few times, ‘You need to effing quit that.’ Or something like that real short.

“I know that was something that extremely disappointed him.”

Ultimately, it was another family member who helped Earnhardt Jr. snap the habit about eight years ago.

Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, put up with his smoking the first few months after they began dating.

“I was trying to quit and tried a couple of times and failed, and it was so disappointing for her,” he said. “Eventually she said to me, ‘Look man, are you really going to get this done? Are you really going to eventually quit?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ And she goes well, ‘Honestly, that could be a dealbreaker for me.’ And I said, ‘Damn, really?’

“She said, ‘Yeah, if you’re not sure, and this is something that is going to be part of our relationship going forward, I just don’t know. So that was a tough conversation that had to be had, and I finally figured out how to get it out of my system when I truly wanted to quit. You have to have that conviction to do it, but it was really, really hard.”

Earnhardt, who just launched a video campaign with Nicorette to help promote its new coated ice mint lozenge that helps smokers quit, said he wanted to help be a coach on the journey for other people trying to quit.

“I figured it wasn’t a super-duper secret that I was a smoker, but maybe it might be worth exposing that little lie and secret to see if I can convince other people to quit because honestly, once I decided to quit, I didn’t realize all the things that smoking was affecting in my life,” he said. “And I was super insecure about it.

“Obviously I didn’t want anybody to know about it, but I worried about whether my car smelled, my clothes smelled, my breath smelled, and then I worried about my long-term health. I had a doctor that’s pretty straightforward, and he’s hammering on me all the time that, ‘Like, dude, you’ve got to quit.’ I seemed to get a lot of sore throats and a lot of colds more frequently than other people that weren’t smokers.

In addition to feeling much healthier, Earnhardt said it changed him for the better socially as well.

“I realized how much control (smoking) had over me,” said the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who also has been open about the impact Amy and Steve Letarte had on him getting out more. “The decisions I made every day were based around smoking. It sort of encouraged that hermit mentality that I had before me and Amy met. Where I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything. You wouldn’t hardly see me leave the bus on a race weekend. I would shorten visits with family on holidays and just avoid activity.

“I’d just sit in the house and play video games because I could smoke. Then I realized once I got done how much that was dictating my day and predicting the choices I made every day. It was all based around my habit of smoking, and that’s pretty stupid, but it’s true.”

Earnhardt said he picked up smoking in his early 20s, just before he began running in the Xfinity Series, while being around friends who did it.

He hid the vice in public because of the worries about his persona (which already had been associated in his youth with wild partying at the “Club E” makeshift nightclub in his basement). While NASCAR also was affiliated with tobacco through having R.J. Reynolds as the title sponsor of its top series for more than 30 years, Earnhardt said there was a “negative stigma that was building” about smoking when he took it up.

“It wasn’t popular, cool or trendy,” he said. “I wasn’t so much worried about sponsors as just worried about disappointing people. I just tried not to really push it in front of anyone’s face. I wouldn’t walk up and down pit road holding a cigarette. I just thought that would be a mess.

“People would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get your head on straight. You’re supposed to be this race car driver,’ and I already had people questioning my focus and my determination. If I’m walking around smoking a cigarette on Saturday between practices, I’m sure that was going to just feed into that.”

Mike Wells set to direct final NASCAR race for NBC Sports

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For the last four Labor Day weekends, each visit to Darlington Raceway on “Throwback Weekend” has been a trip down memory lane for NASCAR.

Especially for the man who has helped oversee packaging and presenting some of the most indelible images in stock-car racing over the past four decades.

“During the (Southern 500) broadcasts, we play back historic races of Darlington, and I’m going, ‘Oh yup, I did that one, and yeah, I did that one,’” Mike Wells, who is in his 38th season of directing NASCAR races, said recently with a chuckle. “One of the most memorable races – and there’s a number of them – but Bill Elliott was the first one to get the Winston Million and I directed that one, and that was a pretty cool thing. There’s just so many different ones, quite frankly.”

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway on NBC will mark the last chance for the 21-time Emmy Award winner to leave his stamp on creating NASCAR memories as he closes a run that began in 1981 at Rockingham Speedway.

Wells said he has lost precise count of how many hundreds of races he has directed since then, but he estimates snapping his fingers – his signature method of calling for a camera change – several hundred thousand times in production trucks at racetracks around the country.

That distinct rhythm will move to another racing circuit next year as NBC Sports takes over full coverage of the IndyCar Series, and Wells directs the Indianapolis 500 and other select races.

“Mike’s contributions to NBC Sports and NASCAR during the past 37 seasons have been immeasurable,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports. “His legacy as an Emmy Award-winning director and innovator in the sport is second only to his reputation as a tremendous teammate, leader and mentor to so many who have had the privilege of working with him.

“While it’s bittersweet for this to be Mike’s final NASCAR race for us, we can’t think of a better person to direct NBC’s inaugural Indy 500 in 2019.”

Fittingly, Talladega has been the site for much of Wells’ most memorable race direction in NASCAR.

He was selecting the camera angles for the May 4, 1986 race that began with a fan stealing the pace car. Wells was in the production truck a year later at Talladega when rookie Davey Allison scored his first Cup victory and was congratulated in victory lane by his father, Bobby, whose car had flown into the frontstretch catchfence earlier in the race and caused nearly a 3-hour delay (NASCAR instituted restrictor plates the following season).

Wells also was at Talladega to frame the Oct. 15, 2000 dash by Dale Earnhardt from 18th to first in the final five laps of the last victory of his career.

The Nov. 15, 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway – which marked Alan Kulwicki winning the championship in the final race of Richard Petty and the debut of Jeff Gordon – also was directed by Wells.

“Again, it was just really special to be a part of that whole thing,” said Wells, who also takes pride in directing the first Daytona 500 win, Brickyard 400 victory and championship for Jimmie Johnson during the ’06 season. He also worked Johnson’s seventh championship in the Nov. 20, 2016 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Wells said it’s tough to pick a favorite track, but he can recall many of their special moments, such as Tony Stewart’s July 2, 2005 win at Daytona International Speedway.

“He climbed up in the flagstand, and we had a camera there, and the fireworks were going off behind him,” Wells said. “My job is to capture the moments, and that was a moment.”

Raised in Milwaukee (where his house was a few miles from a speedway, and he could hear the cars on weekends), Wells’ introduction to race direction came at Eldora Speedway in 1980 when he spent time with track founder Earl Baltes during a camera survey.

“That’s kind of how I really got interested in racing, and a year later, I’m doing NASCAR,” said Wells, who was hired by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ken Squier to direct his first race. “It was pretty cool.”

Technology has changed markedly in the interim with Wells chuckling as he recalls team members once helping carry the cables on handheld cameras used to cover pit stops (they are now wireless).

Back then, just the cable for a camera was four times the size, and quite frankly, you were limited by the length of the cable or you started losing picture,” Wells said. “So now you can go an indefinite amount of miles because of the fiber. That’s probably one of the biggest technical achievements. Certainly the in-car cameras and the robocams and the BatCams, those kind of things, really are huge. It was tough getting in and out of the pit area with them tied to a cable.”

In the past two seasons, Wells also has been pleased by the positive impact on race production by the addition of stages “because you’re guaranteed restarts and now you actually get less green-flag commercials because those commercials are built in during the caution. So the fan at home actually gets to see more green-flag racing than they would have in the past.”

While he largely is responsible for what fans see as a race director, Wells constantly credits his co-workers for the quality of the broadcasts that typically involve a crew of more than 100 people.

He recently was touched when a former longtime camera operator on his crew drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas last month just to visit for an evening with Wells before he directed his last playoff opener.

“You just can’t beat that,” Wells said. “It’s such a close-knit family anyway. I keep saying we’re like a traveling gypsy show, and we are. You just feel so proud that someone would take the time to do that.”

You can hear Wells recount his career during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast by listening below or via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.

Behind the scenes with Dale Earnhardt Jr. the businessman: Belt buckles, brands and big plans

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MORRISVILLE, N.C. – The shiny new restaurant bar’s location is a prime one at the bustling crossroads inside Terminal 2 of Raleigh Durham International Airport.

It sits at the transitional nexus of Gates D14 to 20 (where a bevy of passengers are awaiting midmorning flights to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Newark and Trenton, N.J.), next door to a Starbucks and adjacent to a corridor that will hum with daily foot traffic for countless destinations.

On a recent Monday morning in June, the proprietor of the establishment casually stood near its signature mechanical bull, waiting to be announced at the grand opening of the newest location for Dale Jr.’s Whisky River.

Booming over the din of an annoyingly loud airport PA crackling with boarding announcements and lost items at security, the introduction was a grand one.

“He once was known as a great race car driver … now he’s known as a great restaurateur and businessman!”

The entrepreneurial description of a two-time Daytona 500 winner might have seemed a curveball, but this also isn’t the Dale Earnhardt Jr. you’ve known for the past two decades in NASCAR.

In trading a helmet for the headset that he will don as an official broadcast analyst for the first time Friday, Earnhardt hasn’t left racing behind by a long shot, but it’s also clear that as one phase of his life ends — the competitive driving synonymous with his family’s famous surname for more than a half-century – a new chapter is unfolding that will feature some of the same ambition and competitiveness.

It’s the race to make Earnhardt more transcendent as a brand ambassador and cultural touchstone than he’s ever been — without ever taking another checkered flag.

“I don’t want to stop working or doing,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com about his life outside racing full time for the first time since 1998. “I just didn’t want to drive a car anymore. I’ve got a lot of businesses that are growing or trying to grow.

“I didn’t retire from driving race cars to just not do anything or take a break.”

In many ways, the schedule is more harried now for the 43-year-old who’s gotten married and became a first-time father over the past 18 months.

There is the work that will begin as NBC Sports Group takes over the 2018 NASCAR schedule this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Earnhardt will join former crew chief Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Rick Allen in the broadcast booth for a career that he hopes will go “for a long time … 10 to 20 years.”

But that’s only the most highly visible endeavor of a well-crafted business portfolio whose tentacles touch the media, automotive and food and beverage industries.

  • Whisky River, which already had bustling locations in Uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, recently opened its newest branch at RDU, soon will open a sprawling 14,000-square-foot footprint (much of it retail) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and is planning another airport location in Fort Lauderdale.
  • The Beverly Hills-based WME talent agency has Earnhardt, its first race car driver client, slotted for three to four TV series on which he will serve as executive producer, as well as several other projects (including licensing and endorsements, an “experiential” project and more frequent speaking engagements and personal appearances that aren’t necessarily tied to racing).
  • Hammerhead Entertainment, Earnhardt’s longtime production company, will handle some of the TV work and more, while Dirty Mo Media, his burgeoning content network, has expanded his Dale Jr. Download podcast into a weekly show on NBCSN.
  • There also are the Chevrolet and Buick GMC dealerships (co-owned with former car owner Rick Hendrick’s automotive sales empire) in Tallahassee, Florida.
  • And a DIY show (“Renovation Realities: Dale Jr. and Amy”) has been providing an often lighthearted glimpse at a house restoration project in Key West, Florida (that he took on with his new wife, an interior designer whom he credits often for helping him become more comfortable in public).

He is barely seven months removed from his last start in NASCAR’s premier series, but the foundation for a full and smooth transition to beyond the wheel was being laid since Earnhardt approached his 40s.

Mike Davis, the director of brand strategy at JR Motorsports, said the discussions began five years ago “about pressing Dale to think about what life after racing would look like.” It was long before a concussion sidelined Earnhardt for the second half of 2016 and helped cement 2017 as his final season (he will detail how he wrestled with concussions and when to end his career in a new book, “Racing to the Finish,” with author Ryan McGee that will be released in October).

“For a lot of athletes, their whole identity is wrapped up in their sport that they compete,” Davis said. “When they lose that identity, get replaced and retire, and don’t have whatever needs being met, they don’t know what to do with themselves, and it affects their happiness. I was concerned about Dale in that regard. I had a feeling he had his stuff together and wasn’t going to go through, ‘What am I going to do without my racing?’ but you never know how people are going to react until you go there.”


Earnhardt has reacted by filling (but not necessarily replacing) some of the competitive void through investing more time on his businesses. Though his older sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, runs his long-term financial planning, Earnhardt is looking at his company’s monthly balance sheets more closely and asking “Why?” more often about how and when the profit and loss numbers shift (“We remodeled the house in Key West, and you had a wedding,” was a recent answer).

For Earnhardt’s millions of fans, retirement might mean a beachfront condo and cashing in the 401k in their happy golden years, yet it means something entirely different for a 15-time Most Popular Driver whose professional career has ended while arriving at a completely different station in middle age.

“I think one of the reasons he doesn’t miss being in a race car that much is that he’s got this whole new thing called marriage and family in his life,” Earnhardt Miller said. “Where a lot of people, that kind of simultaneously happens: You get married, you have kids, you build your career.

“For him it’s these two different things: He’s had this driving career for 20 years where he hasn’t had a wife traveling with him or family. So now he’s got this attention in this whole new way, and this whole new life of things he gets to do, so I think that those whys are important because of that. Because he wants to be involved and know, ‘What’s this going to do for me? What kind of effort am I putting into it? Why am I doing it?’ He wants to understand.”

And that’s driven as much by the finite realities of being a family man.

“It really isn’t the sky is the limit because with success comes responsibility and devoting more time to those things, and there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend on anything,” Earnhardt said when asked about his financial ambitions. “So it’s really going to be whatever you put in, you’re going to get out of it.

“I don’t really have a big long-term vision. We didn’t have one for JR Motorsports. It just sort of grew and had success and more success and got bigger and bigger and bigger, and you turn around one day, and you just can’t believe how much it’s grown from where we started it, and I hope that’s what I feel about all our businesses one day.”

Over the last 17 years since Kelley Earnhardt Miller came to help run the businesses, JR Motorsports, which most publicly functions as a four-car team in the Xfinity Series, has grown from six employees to more than 150.

Perhaps that exponential growth won’t happen for his businesses, but there is potential for properties such as Whisky River to expand nationally.

It will be predicated, though, on Earnhardt remaining a cross-cultural force with the commercially appealing power that he commands simply by being himself.

That’s why he has aligned with WME, which has worked to help slide pro athletes into new business ventures (Kobe Bryant, who recently won an Academy Award as the executive producer of a short animated film after five NBA championships, would be a good example).

“Dale is unique because he has really shown some of the greatest courage to go into a sport that unfortunately took his father,” said Sean Perry, a partner at WME in the non-scripted television department. “He then excelled at it both on the track and being an ambassador. He speaks to Americana in the best way. There’s really nobody that you could say, ‘Dale is like this.’ Because there is nobody like Dale.

“We think he’s only done Chapter I of his career, and there’s a lot more.”

A blueprint was left by other popular athletes, such as Magic Johnson and Peyton Manning, who have continued to leave a mark long after their playing days were over.

“Athletes with strong and monetizable personal brands that extend well beyond their careers tend to have three things going for them,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute and principal of The Sports Business Group. “They have a comprehensive approach which includes tactically marketing themselves, finding the right mix of investment options and surrounding themselves with ethical, capable advisors. They then deliver and reinforce a consistent message and do so with just the right amount of exposure.

“Earnhardt is well positioned to excel long term because he comes across as authentic and has a committed and avid following, one cultivated over a very long time.”

Former NBA Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal (another WME client) and Charles Barkley (whose renown as an NBA analyst and celebrity endorser probably exceeds the fame of his All-Star seasons) are the two retired role models for Earnhardt.

“You’ve got to still want to be a personality that people are interested in working with and have to do things like broadcasting,” Earnhardt said. “You look at Shaquille and Charles and what they were able to do with their brands after they played. They make a good living doing what they do. People still want to be involved with them. Not only just Corporate America, but people still want to be in business with them.

“Those are two guys that would be good comparisons to what you’d like to accomplish after your playing career is over. They have fun. They enjoy what they do.”


The atmosphere is loose and festive during the Whisky River grand opening at RDU.

As a guitarist strums and sings “Ring of Fire” on a low-slung stage in a corner of the restaurant, a crowd of airport dignitaries, regional business leaders and some members of the North Carolina legislature are met by carving stations offering samples off the menu (Earnhardt’s favorite is the buffalo chicken salad) and nearly 200 Mason jars filled with the bar’s most popular cocktails.

Earnhardt moves effortlessly among them, glad-handling VIPs while constantly signing autographs and taking photos with everyone from congressman to waitstaff.

He shows off a few Whisky River traditions – a wall of welded belt buckles (like Earnhardt’s tastes, it’s eclectic and ranges from the cover of The Clash’s self-titled debut album to traditional cattle drive motifs) and Junebug, the mechanical bull.

Junebug the mechanical bull.

He encourages everyone to try the latter while they can. The Charlotte airport location no longer has one “because there were so many people trying to get in, there weren’t enough seats. That’s a good problem to have.

“We took it out to pasture, but it’ll be back,” he said. “We hope to do that here.”

The CLT location has become one of the airport’s biggest restaurants in revenue, breaking some monthly sales records, according to Earnhardt. Partnering with HMS Host, which operates restaurants and stores in more than 100 airports, there could be as many as two to three dozen Whisky River terminal locations in the future.

“However many they want to put in these airports,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got a great partner, so we’re working with people who have so much success, so they can plug us right into these airports, and we can hit the ground running. You don’t go in wondering if it’s going to work or apprehensive, you feel pretty confident going in that it’s going to have success and people are going to like it because of your involvement with HMS Host and their experience with doing business in airports.”

With nearly 12 million passengers coming through RDU last year, there’s an inherent customer base, but Earnhardt prides himself on serving “amazing food because that’s the reason people really come” to the franchises that bear his stamp.

The wall of buckles at Whisky River.

Whisky River is an offshoot of the replica Wild West town that Earnhardt built on his 200-acre property north of Charlotte, an homage to a favorite movie genre inherited from his late father (who loved the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood).

It makes it easier to make the sales pitch.

“I tell people all the time we don’t have to give him talking points or say, “Hey, you need to say this,” because he speaks from the heart and that’s what we operated based off,” said Tony Mayhoff, Earnhardt’s director of brand marketing and partnerships. “He’s very genuinely Dale Jr. and every business has his personality.”

That’s been true from the outset for Earnhardt, a technophile and shoe maven who once had personal service agreements with Sony and Adidas, but there also have been some misses on business investments.

A standalone Whisky River in Jacksonville, Florida, closed after a four-year run (its sales couldn’t support its size, Earnhardt Miller said). An early attempt at a social network called Infield Parking might have been too far ahead of its time; a racetrack in Mobile, Alabama, never got off the drawing board; and two lines of chocolate bars and potato chips bearing his name and likeness fizzled despite strong corporate backing.

“There are certain partnerships that haven’t always materialized for some reason or another,” Earnhardt Miller said. “A lot of people come to you and think if they just put Dale’s name on something and turn it into bucks. We’ve learned through trial and error through the years of what has worked and didn’t.”

And as her younger brother has gotten older, becoming more selective with opportunities has been a byproduct. Even Whisky River, which has evolved from its origins as a bar that also was a trendy nightclub into a more accessible restaurant that also has a bar, is indicative of Earnhardt Jr. gracefully aging into family man.

“Probably 10 years ago, we could have done a few things that maybe weren’t exact alignments with him and pulled it off, but I think with his growth and maturity that it’s more important now in his businesses,” Earnhardt Miller said. “If we do things that are consistent with who Dale is, they’re going to flourish and grow in a greater way because he gets to speak to it in a real and true way. I think that just opens up opportunities for us because there’s certain things that really haven’t made sense in the past because he wasn’t married (and) didn’t have a family.”

It’s certainly a marked change from the hell-raising lifestyle of “Club E”, the parties in his basement that Earnhardt regularly threw in the early 2000s as the Budweiser-sponsored bachelor with a 200-mph ride and a famously edgy Rolling Stone interview.

Now the avid social media user often has used Instagram and Twitter to promote his love of grilling meats and BBQ. When her brother recently sent invites to his boat for a summer excursion, Earnhardt Miller cautiously asked if it would be family oriented for her oldest teenage daughter to attend.

“He was like, ‘Everything is family friendly from here on out!’ ” Earnhardt Miller said with a laugh. “OK, now I don’t have to ask anymore.”

It’s benefited his JR Motorsports’ Xfinity Series sponsors, too, as Dale Jr. and his wife, Amy, have helped marketed family products for Suave and Dove.

Marriage also earned him a deal with QALO, a silicon ring company. When the announcement was made on social media, a Twitter troll asked in a (since-deleted) tweet what he was becoming.

Earnhardt replied, “A husband and a father.”


There’s still time to be a husband, a father and a sports fan, though, and Earnhardt has made the most of NBC Sports Group’s reach.

Since January, he has filed reports or made on-air appearances at the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics and the Stanley Cup. If not for his niece’s high school graduation, he’d have watched Justify win the Belmont Stakes in person.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller met with HMS executives during the grand opening of Whiskey River at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Beyond promoting NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage, the network exposure also helps Earnhardt keep his sponsors happy (he retained Nationwide and Goodyear from NASCAR).

“We weren’t after the deal that paid us the most, we were after the deal that kept us the most relevant,” said Davis, one of Earnhardt’s chief lieutenants for more than 12 years. “That’s the beauty of the NBC deal: Find me another way in which you go to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. That’s incredible for us.

“Relevancy is what we’re after, and that’s why this is awesome. The businesses of Dale Jr. thrive based off that. That’s the top of the pyramid.”

On a much lesser scale, the DIY show (which has drawn solid social media buzz) is another example of “staying in the conversation.” Envisioned originally as a path to defraying the costs of an expensive Key West house renovation, the financial return wasn’t as expected for a major time commitment (Dale and Amy spent most of their off days doing shoots during the second half of last year).

“We ended up breaking even on it,” Earnhardt said. “We couldn’t get deals on the parts and pieces and wood and lumber and things like that, so we ended up paying for that ourselves. Basically it was just to do the TV show to keep partners happy like Nationwide and Goodyear, you have to be relevant. That’s part of being on NBC broadcasts is to be out there. Because if you don’t, you’re out of sight, out of mind.”

The project also is indicative of how ideas get generated by Earnhardt’s brand team, which was reorganized about 18 months ago and meets weekly on big-picture ideas. Earnhardt Miller’s friendship with an HGTV producer (from a show long ago about her passion for scrapbooking) helped spur “Renovation Realities.”

As the leader of the family oriented company (Earnhardt’s aunt, Cathy, has run his retail store for years, and his mother, an uncle and cousins also work at JRM), Earnhardt Miller has been the final say on her brother’s business directions for nearly two decades, and the dynamics seem to be working well enough to impress WME, which also counts Novak Djokovic, Draymond Green, Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, Cam Newton and Serena Williams among its clients.

“As agents, you often times get involved with a major star and make a determination of, ‘OK, who’s really good on their team, and who are we going to educate and have honest conversations with someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind,’” Perry said. “When you look at his core team. Kelley could be the chairwoman and CEO of any company, racing or otherwise, in the country. We were most impressed that these were not just really good men and women in the racing world, he had exceptional people, a very tight-knit group all rowing the boat in the same direction.”

But the cues now also are coming frequently from Dale Jr., who is “a lot more involved, collaborative and interested,” Kelley said. “Before it was just tell him what you were doing and tell him when to show up.”

Letarte, who will be reunited with Earnhardt as an NBC co-worker after guiding him as his crew chief from 2011-14, said Earnhardt is more calculating than some realize with his business acumen.

“Dale is one of those guys who has a very original brand because it’s who he is,” Letarte said. “He doesn’t try to be anybody but himself. I think that makes him very comfortable to be his brand because it’s not make believe; what you see is what you get.

“With that said, the success and reach of the brand isn’t by just dumb luck. I think he’s way smarter than that. I don’t know if they’re all his strategies or if he’s smart enough to surround himself with people and empower people to spread his brand. I think Dale has a vision, more than anything, of surrounding himself with smart people believing in their vision.”

Dale Jr. laughs when asked about what kind of businessman he is.

“Shoot, I don’t know,” he said before a long pause. “I like to have success. Just like you do on the racetrack. I think it’s real similar as far as I’m competitive. I hate losing. I like to be the best at whatever business we’re doing, whatever we’re trying to accomplish. You want to win.”

That was driven home two months ago when he was the featured speaker for a Chevrolet dealership convention in Las Vegas.

“They entertained the top 250 managers from the top 250 dealerships across the country, and we’re not there,” Earnhardt said. “I want to be there.”

How close is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet to being there? Earnhardt, who visits the Tallahassee showrooms at least twice annually to support his staffs, shrugged as he hops out of a van and heads for a door leading to the Whiskey River grand opening.

“That’s a good question, and I just know we weren’t there,” he said. “We should be. And our dealership does great. I try to see everybody, show my appreciation and come across as appreciative to the people doing the work.

“But you got to win. You’ve got to want to win — and kick some ass and everything.”

Jimmie Johnson: ‘Everywhere we look, there’s change’ at Hendrick

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CHARLOTTE – Half of Hendrick Motorsports’ driver lineup will be new in 2018, but that only represents the surface level of the team’s massive overhaul for this season.

In a visit to the NASCAR on NBC podcast during this week’s preseason Media Tour, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson outlined the structural facelift of its sprawling 140-acre campus near Charlotte Motor Speedway. After running its four cars in pairs based out of two buildings for more than a decade (last season, Johnson’s No. 48 and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 were in one shop with the teams of Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne next door), Hendrick has redesigned its approach and will bring many of its processes under one roof.

“Everywhere we look, there’s change,” Johnson said. “Our two shops are now one. The process is just a lot different. So the way we’ve known it, we’re all trying to pull those layers back and say, ‘Let’s start over.’ We’ve got a great new starting point. And let’s figure out what the new normal is and how to make this work.”

The organizational chart for Hendrick’s competition department was redone last August, two months after the departure of general manager Doug Duchardt (who joined Chip Ganassi Racing). Hendrick also added longtime GM Racing executive Alba Colon last month.

Johnson said it’s changed the workflow for his team and crew chief Chad Knaus because “the way we go about doing our jobs, it’s a bit different now” as Hendrick attempts to building more cohesiveness across its lineup, which will add Alex Bowman and William Byron in place of Earnhardt and Kahne.

“Just from an efficiency standpoint and also trying to get all of the smartest people in a huddle on any given part of the car,” he said. “What’s been tough for us is we’ve had so much success with four teams sharing data … but all four cars are coming to the track different. Especially from the 48-88 shop to the other shop, pretty big differences.

“Why don’t we have all these smart people in one room think-tanking ideas? From engineering, brakes and transmissions, aero … down the entire line. So that’s really what we’re doing. In today’s world with sponsorship dollars where it is, it’s smart to be more efficient.”

After spending much of the last two years with his family in Aspen, Colorado, Johnson said he also plans to reside in Charlotte more often (while splitting time in Aspen and New York) as he takes a larger leadership role.

“I just feel that an area I haven’t fully exploited is just my involvement in the energy and the atmosphere within our race team,” said Johnson, who was winless over the final 23 races and finished 10th in the points standings, tying the second-worst finish of his career. “I’m around. I’m there. Definitely know my role as the driver, but just feel like I can do more. When I watch other pro sports, college sports, and you just see a locker room environment that looks very interesting and amazing. That’s something I feel I can help lead and orchestrate within the 48 and at Hendrick Motorsports.”

You can hear Johnson at the 9:30 mark of the podcast, which also features Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast or listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you download podcasts.

F1 star Daniel Ricciardo introduced to NASCAR world in Texas

(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 star Daniel Ricciardo made his first visit to a NASCAR Cup Series race at Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 from Texas Motor Speedway, as the Australian driver for Red Bull Racing was a guest of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott.

Ricciardo had told NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas last month in Austin he planned to make a return visit to Texas to see Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s final start at the track as a full-time Cup driver.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well,” Ricciardo told NBCSN. “Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Elliott welcomed Ricciardo around, and he took in the atmosphere pre-race. He met Joey Logano, among others, before having the chance to see Earnhardt and complete his idea of doing the helmet swap.

Both Earnhardt and Ricciardo signed each other’s helmets, and Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports as an analyst for its NASCAR coverage in 2018, said he looks forward to attending a Formula 1 race next year.

Some of the other NASCAR posts Ricciardo appeared in on Sunday are below.

Ricciardo also posted a couple photos to his Instagram story on Sunday.