Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – SPEEDWAY, IN – Eight races into his NBC Sports broadcasting gig, Dale Earnhardt Jr. conceded it’s been a legitimate learning experience, but he’s loving the opportunity and figuring out how to be a good student of the occupation.
This weekend, the two-time Daytona 500 winner will drive the Chevrolet pace car prior to the start of Monday’s rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a first-time opportunity for Earnhardt at the historic track and one that he is genuinely excited about.
“I was asked if I would be interested in doing that and it’s such an historic race track and a big race for the series, plus the relationship with Chevrolet that I’ve had for years, it just made a lot of sense to me, as long as everybody with NBC and with the broadcast didn’t mind,’’ Earnhardt said Sunday morning trackside.
“Obviously, I’ll miss the front end of the show and probably won’t get up into Turn 2 until a few laps into the race, but we’ve got a plan to make sure all that is real smooth. So it will be good. It will be a bit of a bucket-list kind of item for me, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Earnhardt will be making another “first” in two weeks at Richmond International Raceway. Although he has retired from fulltime racing, he will be making a one-race start in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the Sept. 21 Xfinity Series race at the track.
It will be his first NASCAR start since he climbed out of his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale in Homestead, Florida, last November.
“I’m looking forward to it,’’ Earnhardt said, flashing a smile.
“I didn’t miss racing at the start of the year at all. I didn’t miss driving much. When I got back to the broadcasting and started to really plug into what the races were like and what was going on, you see moments in the races that make you wish you were out there doing that. And so, I started to miss it a little bit.
“I like Richmond as a track. And it’s a pretty straightforward little race track. We have had success there. I’m not really putting any expectations or pressure on myself as far as performance. I just want to go run and have fun.
And, Earnhard said, it just may be the last time he enters a major NASCAR race.
“It’s the only time I’m going to race a car this year. And it may be the last time I race a car,’’ he said.
“I really don’t know what our plans are going forward. I don’t really have any initiative to drive a ton of races. So, we’ll just kind of see what kind of opportunities there are down the road with the sponsorships and so forth that help the rest of the company. But, hopefully I get to run all the laps and just enjoy driving the car. The only reason you get behind the wheel of a race car is because it’s fun and you enjoy the competition. Hopefully those are things that I get out of it and try not to get real competitive about it. I don’t want to sweat over every lap and how fast we are in practice and all those things, and make it a miserable experience (laughs) because most race car drivers tend to do that if you’re not careful.”
In the meantime, Earnhardt will work his new “day job” for NBC – an opportunity that has pushed and challenged the driver in ways he didn’t necessarily anticipate. Each week, he has had a different role on the television broadcast and he says it has really forced him to push his own limits.
He says the whole experience has really opened his eyes. And although there’s been a definitive learning curve, Earnhardt is enjoying the new job.
“I didn’t even pay attention to this stuff when I wasn’t in broadcasting,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s so funny. The complexities and things going on in the broadcast production side of it that you had no idea were happening when you’re driving a car.
“I hope to get a lot better. I want to be around a long time. I want to do this for a while. I really enjoy it. So, I think there are areas where I can improve and I’ve got to pay my dues kind of thing. So, I’m doing that. It’s not easy. It feels stressful and there’s some competition. There are really good people in that production team and in the booth. All the people have great personalities and are fun to be around. But, it’s competitive in the sense.
“They lean on you to do your job and hold up your end, you know? You can’t come in ill prepared. And, it’s obvious when you’re not doing your homework. It’s obvious to everyone in the room. We spend so much time around each other. So, there’s a little pressure and it’s good. It’s competitive and the team pushes you. So, I’m trying to find my place and trying to do a good job and make them glad that they hired me.”