CHARLOTTE, N.C. – One common word heard during the pre-season NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway is “excited.” Nearly every driver is “excited” to get back to racing, “excited” to win, and well, just “excited” for everything in general.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. uttered the word “excited” Wednesday, but his use was probably more genuine and honest than any of the dozens of drivers who faced the media this week.
NASCAR’s 14 time most popular driver missed most of the second half of the 2016 season while he recovered from concussion like symptoms. He worked with doctors and made the announcement in December, much to the relief of the NASCAR Nation that he will race in 2017. So Wednesday, when Earnhardt said he was “excited”, there was little doubt that he really meant it.
“(It’s) new for me this year,” Earnhardt said of the annual first media day of the year. ‘Usually you kind of tell everybody Daytona will get here when it gets here, but I’m excited for the season. It can’t get here fast enough. Really thankful to be back and be working, and can’t wait for the opportunity to test at Phoenix in a couple of days and then get on to Daytona and get on to work.”
The announcement of his return in December wasn’t a big deal to Earnhardt.
“The approved to race thing was a slow evolution and something that you could see coming and get physically and mentally prepared for it,” he said. “To get approved to race is one thing but to decide to race is another. Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing. And if you want to keep racing you have to go into it 100 percent. This is the top, elite series of motorsports in North America and if you’re going to be out there you can’t do it without 100 percent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions myself and just really buy in. All that was a big process and I’m really happy with what I’ve decided to do. But it wasn’t that emotional.”
What was emotional in December was the life changing event for Earnhardt. He made his girlfriend of 7 years, Amy, his wife. The couple was engaged while on a trip to Germany. Dale popped the question to Amy in an old church connected to the Earnhardt family. The couple wed at the Richard Childress Winery in Welcome, North Carolina on New Years Eve.
“Getting married has been incredible,” Earnhardt said. “I wish I would have figured this all out sooner. I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts – personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people. And, obviously, in my professional life she’s helped me as a driver. It’s been great. Just hoping to enjoy what’s left of my career, and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I’ll race. Going to start a family, too, so have a lot of good things to look forward to. Really excited about my future.”
Earnhardt admitted that he might have a bit of a learning curve when he gets back to racing. The last time Earnhardt ran a full race was in June of last year at Kentucky Speedway. He did test at Darlington early in December.
“This is the top series and any time you’re away you’re getting behind,” Earnhardt said. “I’m really anxious and curious where we shake up early in the season, how competitive we can be, what – if any – learning curve there is for me. We’ll figure all that out.”
It wasn’t the racing Earnhardt missed the most during his time off.
“I missed the camaraderie,” he said. “That’s the one thing I’ll probably miss the most when I’m not racing is just the friendships and the inside the track. I have an awesome road crew, we’re all buddies, we all communicate every day. We use an app to be able to communicate and text each other as a group, so it’s a close-knit sort of family and I’m going to miss all that. It’s fun to be able to go as a team and succeed. Even when you don’t succeed, those are the guys you lean on. You sort of lift each other up, and I’m going to miss all that. That was something that was difficult to watch someone else do in your place. Certainly jealous of Jeff and Alex working with my guys. At the same time, I was happy for Alex and glad Jeff was available. You definitely were wishing it was you in there getting the work.”
His time away also made him appreciate the life he does have.
“You do take your job for granted when you’re doing it every week,” Earnhardt said. “As a society, we get better and better at complaining. The drivers aren’t any different; we moan and complain about everything. But when you get a chance to step back and watch it … I got a chance to be at Dover and watch the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience. It was an out-of-body experience almost to watch all that happen. Looking at them and knowing that was me. I got to see the drivers from a different point of view and got to see the sport from a different point of view.’
“Being out of the car made me anxious to get back in,” he added. “To be honest, I’m happy to come back here and continue to compete. I got real close to not being able to compete and it being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not.”
“People have asked me since I turned 40 when I would retire and all I wanted to do was make that choice myself. I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to able to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff really showed me how much I have going for me and how fun this really is. You can make it really difficult or you can enjoy it. This is an incredible position to be in and it’s an awesome sport, and driving the cars is fun. Doing the photo shoots, doing the commercials and talking to the media, all those things are fun. But you can make it not any fun if you want to. As human beings we have a tendency to do that.’
“The grind, man, is so long. You’re doing it year after year after year, and it doesn’t seem like we had much of an off-season. You actually work harder in the off-season. People think you don’t do anything, you take off. But that’s when everybody knows you have time off so they’re like, ‘Hey, come do this appearance here or this photo shoot.’ We get a break, but just from the driving part. I can see how you get wound up and burned out a little bit. I’m certainly not feeling that way right now, and I’ll be much more self-aware down the road trying to remember what this is and what position I’m in and not take it for granted. It’s easy to do.”