STAMINA & STRENGTH: ICYMI: Dale Earnhardt Jr. chats with DMan's World ahead of return to racing at Daytona 500


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Sunday, February 26, 2017

ICYMI: Dale Earnhardt Jr. chats with DMan's World ahead of return to racing at Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to racing this week after dealing with concussion-like symptoms for the second half of last season. He competes in the Daytona 500 on Sunday. (Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Dennis Manoloff, The Plain Dealer By Dennis Manoloff, The Plain Dealer The Plain Dealer
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on February 26, 2017 at 12:00 AM, updated February 26, 2017 at 12:16 AM

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been on my "bucket list'' of interview subjects for years. And years and years.
I don't know NASCAR like my colleague at The Plain Dealer, Elton Alexander, or like Nate Ryan or Marty Smith or Ryan Isley. But I know a fascinating race-car driver when I see/hear/read about one. Where Q Score is concerned, Earnhardt has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver not two, not four but ... 14 straight years.
The interview finally happened this week -- Daytona 500 week, no less. Because of Earnhardt's packed schedule, I was limited to 10 minutes by phone. I was asked to put a clock on it; if not, Earnhardt would continue talking because that is the type of person he is, always seeking to accommodate. I agreed to the terms. It was painful, but I stuck to 10 minutes (and 20 seconds).
That Earnhardt, 42, would be preparing for Sunday's Daytona 500 was no guarantee as of late last year. He had been sidelined for the second half of 2016 because of concussion-like symptoms. Doctors cleared him to race again in December, but he still needed to decide whether it was worth it to climb back into the No. 88.
DW: When I say, 'Daytona 500,' what comes to mind immediately?
DEJ: Nineteen seventy-nine, 1998, my dad, Buddy Baker, Richard Petty....
DW: When was the last time you went somewhere in public and didn't get recognized for at least 5 minutes?
DEJ: Hmmm. The most recent instance that comes to my mind is, I went to see Lord Huron play in Milwaukee a couple of months ago and spent the whole weekend there without anybody recognizing me.
DW: How fun was that?
DEJ: Oh, it's OK either way. But it's nice to be anonymous every once in a while.
DW: What does it take to be voted NASCAR's most popular driver for what, 75 years in a row?
DEJ: (Laughter) Be yourself, be relatable, be genuine. Tell it like it is. Try to be positive and not cynical or negative. See the good in everything; that's hard to do, I realize, but you've got to give it an effort.
DW: What percentage of your fan base do you guess would like you to call it a racing career and not risk further head injury?
DEJ: I'd say far less than 50 percent. Probably around 20-30.
DW: Did the reality that you have so many off-track interests make you pause about returning for 2017?
DEJ: Well, I certainly know that I want to have -- I'm going to have -- a whole, entirely new, different life beyond driving. I know I've got a lot of things I'm interested in being a part of, and I want to make a second, even third, career out of them. But I'll get to work in lining those up when that time comes. We're not there yet.
DW: Most difficult part(s) of what must have felt like an eternity in returning to the track?
DEJ: Getting up and doing the exercises. Every single day I needed to get up and do the physical and mental exercises, and they were mundane and repetitive. Plus, when you're going five, six weeks with no progress, it's really difficult to find motivation.
DW: Goals for this season?
DEJ: Basically the only goal I have is to compete in every race. It means I would have stayed healthy, which is great.
DW: Word association - Dale Earnhardt Sr.?
DEJ: The Man in Black.
DW: Jimmie Johnson, your Hendrick teammate?
DEJ: Seven-time (NASCAR series champion).
DW: Amy Earnhardt, your new bride?
DEJ: Best thing that ever happened to me.
DW: Talladega?
DEJ: Fast.
DW: Are you still racing because you feel an obligation to your incredible fan base? How much of the motivation is tied to the fans and how much is intrinsic?
DEJ: The decision to continue to race is because of my passion for it, how much I enjoy it. But the fans motivate you to work hard at it. They motivate you to do your best and give your best.
DW: In a roundtable where you can talk racing for an afternoon, give me 2-3 people who join you and your dad.
DEJ: Bill France Jr. and Bill France Sr. I never really got to know either one of them, to be honest with you, and I wish I could have. My dad was great friends with Bill France Jr., and I'd like to hear what all three of those guys thought about where the sport is today and what they would like to see done in the future.
DW: Historical figure with whom you would have liked to sit and have a beer?
DEJ: Abraham Lincoln or JFK. That would be sick; it would be pretty crazy to have an opportunity to spend some time with either one of them. (Chuckle) You'd need more than a beer, I promise you.
DW: Smartest person you've ever met?
DEJ: My boss, Rick Hendrick. He's such an incredible businessman. He knows how to get people motivated. He just knows how to get it done. He's incredible.
DW: What advice would you give to a youngster who dreams of being Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
DEJ: Stay humble and be ready for sacrifice. The sport will do a good job of keeping you humble, but it's very expensive to race, and sometimes you need to make sacrifices in other areas to be able to get that done. It can be a very difficult challenge. There are going to be times when you feel beaten and disheartened about your ability to continue, but don't give up on your dream.
I think the first lesson I learned was, when you're young and working on getting going, most of the people who are helping you are volunteers. And if you don't treat those people right, they're not going to want to help you. They're doing this as a favor and to be a part of your early success, and you need to learn how to treat them well.
DW: To that last point, I was going to ask: What would the 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. have told, say, the 22-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
DEJ: Don't raise so much hell. (Laughter) I don't know how much my goofing off affected my on-track performance, but I'm definitely a much better asset to my team today, and I'm much more professional - waaay more professional - than the early days. When I was young, I got by because of the quality of the team and the talent of the guys I was working with. But once they were leaning on me some, I wasn't always 100 percent focused, I guess. It's hard when you're young, though. You've got a lot of things going on, a lot of distractions.
DW: You are known for being cool, calm and collected on the track and after a race. What is the angriest you've ever been at a race?
DEJ: (Long pause) Anytime there is a debris caution. (Laughter) I'll be honest with you: I get more frustrated when I feel like the race itself is being manipulated than with anything a driver could do to me. I want the sport to be organic, I want the race to play out naturally, I want the competition to look organic and genuine. Anything that steps away from that frustrates the hell out of me. A guy runs over you, you can work that out - it's typically not going to be something that sticks to your ribs for a long period of time. A race not playing out naturally is a whole different deal.
DW: Most important race lesson your dad taught you?
DEJ: I get the question a lot, and no one single thing pops into my mind, as in: 'Oh, man, this is the best piece of advice my dad gave me in racing.' He showed me that I needed to be a bigger part of the team. When I raced and had failures, I would retreat and go sit in a corner and be embarrassed and depressed. He would come up and say, 'Your team is over there fixing the car you wrecked, and you should be with them.' He taught me how to work with the guys around me to get back to the track, and to not feel sorry for myself.
DW: Dale, I promised I would stop at 10 minutes. It's 10 minutes plus 20 seconds. It kills me that I need to stop, but a deal is a deal and I know you are busy.
DEJ: Well, I enjoyed this.
DW: I'd love to do it again.
DEJ: Anytime. Thank you.
(Little does Earnhardt know that I'm going to hold him to it.)

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