Without question, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver. Not only has he been voted so the last 14 consecutive years, but his face and persona draws crowds wherever he goes.
It wasn’t always that way.
When he started in the sport, his father Dale Earnhardt Sr. was still on top of the NASCAR world. As a young man, “Junebug” was known more for his hard-partying lifestyle away from the track, and his somewhat standoffish demeanor in the NASCAR garage.
That all changed after his father’s untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Dale Jr. was of course maturing as a person, but he also became a much more approachable driver.
After some resistance, in the last few years Earnhardt has become the leader in the NASCAR community when it comes to social media. It was all part of “Junebug” growing up, and a little help from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the driver who tied his father with seven NASCAR Cup titles, Jimmie Johnson.
“Jimmie was adamant on coaching me and telling me how it’s useful and why I would want to do it,” Earnhardt said Friday at Kansas Speedway. “None of the other drivers, or anyone else for that matter, was really pushing me to go in that direction. And he’s like man, you’re going to like it. This is something cool. It’s been a great experience to understand the social side of it; not just Twitter, but a lot of other aspects of it as well.”
Recently Earnhardt announced that he will be stepping away from fulltime NASCAR Cup racing after this season. The focus is starting to turn to the young up and coming drivers who might grow into the next NASCAR superstar. As the talk turns to who that might be, Earnhardt is starting to reflect on when he was that young up and coming driver.
Unlike when he first started, he leaves the sport a much different man that when he entered it.
“When I first started racing I didn’t want to do anything but drive,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t want to go do appearances. 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. I lot of different things play in the role of maturing you.”
Part of that maturing process came from Earnhardt’s ownership of his own team, JR Motorsports.
“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,” he 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,” he said reflecting on his past. “And, I didn’t want that reputation when I finish 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 and 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.”
“But, I grew up,” he added. “It just took me a long time to figure all that out. I just think being around Jimmie and Rick (Hendrick) 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.”
There are millions of NASCAR fans who might disagree with that statement, they think that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done just fine.