Each week, I’ll ask the same 12 questions to a different NASCAR driver. Up next: Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports. (Note: This interview was conducted at Atlanta, so the reference to punching a driver had nothing to do with the Las Vegas fight.)
1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?
For a long time, it was all ability, low effort. Now I think it’s 50-50.
2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?
You know, I’ll be honest with you — I’d probably steer them toward the new guys. I’m on the backside of my deal, so for the health of the sport, I think it’d be awesome if they grabbed onto (Ryan) Blaney or Chase (Elliott) or somebody like that. They’re going to be successful and are going to be around a long time. That would probably be better for everybody.
3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?
The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack is probably appearances that are out of market, which means anything Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Like (before Atlanta), we flew to Florida on Wednesday and then we did an appearance in Texas on Thursday and then we came (to Atlanta). It just eats up an entire day.
The appearances themselves are fun. Just the travel — we had a 100-knot wind going out to Texas. It took us three hours to get there, do the appearance and then come home and it’s 5:30, you know? You leave at 9 in the morning. So the travel, I guess. You kind of would like to be home during the week, but you’ve got to be doing these appearances.
4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?
After I’m done eating. Once they see me put my utensils down, I’m fair game.
So if you have a bite of food in your mouth, maybe hold off?
Yeah, it’s probably going to piss off whoever I’m having dinner with more than me. I don’t like people talking over my food. Like if you’ve got a plate of food in front of you and somebody comes over and talks over your shoulder? I don’t like my dog even being near me when I’m eating, breathing all over my plate. It’s just gross.
They’re raining spittle down on your food.
There is the possibility! In all likelihood, they are.
5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?
Well, I think there needs to be more effort to market Chase, Blaney, Bubba Wallace. They’re doing a great job with Suarez, but they need to really get these guys in front of not only the NASCAR fans, but more mainstream media (like) Rolling Stone.
Blaney did Watch What Happens Live (the Andy Cohen show on Bravo) before I did, which is certainly outside the NASCAR world. Those are great things for those guys, because they’re carrying the torch, man.
And they have the personalities. They’re so funny, you know? And they’re good guys. They’re not brats. They all have great personalities, and if NASCAR is going to return to its peak, that’s where it’s going to come from. Those guys, they’re going to be the ones driving when that happens. (The NASCAR marketers) need to start putting the funding and the marketing behind those guys and get people to know them.
6. Who is the last driver you texted?
Let me see. (Pulls out phone.) Jimmie (Johnson), Kasey (Kahne) and Chase. We’re on a GroupMe (chat on a texting app). We were talking about running a four-mile run tonight.
And you’re thinking of doing that?
Yeah, I ran three at home yesterday. So it shouldn’t be too hard. I don’t run the pace they run though. Jimmie and Chase are in the 8-minute mark but I’m not even close.
So you can do a 5K now?
Yeah. Sure! I could. Yeah, that’d be great. I should try one.
Anyway, that’s the last group. I guess that’s too obvious.
7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?
Yes! Yeah, I think certain guys — Spencer Gallagher… OK, you laugh. I think he’s certainly entertaining when he’s doing his interviews. He’s got a great outlook and approach to racing and is very cavalier about it, but at the same time, he’s competitive.
I talked about Blaney and Chase. Those guys are hopefully going to utilize their personalities to market themselves. There is a point when you’re an entertainer, you know? You get up and do those Q&As, and you’ve got to be funny and witty and interact with the audience. When you’re in the car, I don’t think you’re much of an entertainer. But outside of the car, you are an entertainer many times during the week.
8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?
Well, that’s a good one. If they’re much, much younger than you, you can totally flip them off. If they’re the same age as you or have ran more than four or five seasons, you cannot flip them off.
I flipped off Shawna Robinson once in practice, and she wrecked me in the race. She never said she meant it on purpose, but she was very upset with me in practice.
You hear about Rusty Wallace and all those other guys — you get flipped off, especially by someone younger than you? You just go on attack mode. You lose your mind. So it’s a very seldom-used expression on the track and there’s some etiquette there on when to use it and when not to use it.
9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?
You certainly do remember the guys that tend to race you not as hard. I think you race people how they race you. Other than that, you don’t really keep a mental note of it. There’s guys that are really, really hard to pass — (Ryan) Newman’s probably at the top of that list; if you asked everybody who is hardest to pass, they’re going to say Newman. But he’s a great guy. We’re pretty decent friends, to be honest with you.
But then there’s guys like Mark Martin that never raced anybody hard — at least in the first half of the race. A lot of give and take there. And when he’d come up on you, you’d kind of return the favor.
10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?
Jay-Z and Beyonce. When he invited us to Monaco to be in their video with Danica way back, about freakin’ 10 years ago, we had dinner with them. Lot of fun. Had some beers and goofed up and joked around quite a bit. They’re very down to earth.
Did they seem like normal people?
They were incredibly normal. Beyonce said I reminded her of her uncle with my honesty. I guess I’m super honest. Amazing compliment.
11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?
My disposition. Be a happier person more consistently. Not get bummed out or frustrated or aggravated so easily.
I don’t know. You say that, but lately…
I’m hanging onto it. Yeah. See, I got this being out of the car. I sort of worked on myself a little bit, so I’m trying to hang onto it. But this racing can piss you off, so I don’t know how long it’s going to last.
12. The last interview was with Garrett Smithley. He wanted to know what advice you’d give to yourself as a rookie driver that you would do differently now.
There’s a lot of things I didn’t know or didn’t do well. I would have spent more time in the hauler working on the car with Tony (Eury) Sr. and Tony (Eury) Jr. They weren’t the chattiest guys, but I certainly would have been much, much more involved in what went on between practice and qualifying, and what went on between qualifying and Saturday practice and all that.
I would walk up to the car just as they were firing the motors. Nowadays, I feel bad if I’m not here 30 minutes early, talking to Greg (Ives) and seeing what the plan is. And then when we get done running, I hang around until Greg seems to be bored with me.
When I was racing as a rookie, I’d get out of the car, say five words to Tony Jr. and run into the bus and play video games the rest of the day until it was time to go get in the car for qualifying (with) like 10 cars to go. I didn’t have my head on straight. Everything had been handed to me in a sense to where I didn’t appreciate how much I needed to be working for this — and how much that would have made a difference. I didn’t think it would or even know it would. I certainly have learned a lot.
Do you have a question for the next driver?
If you could punch any driver in the face, who would it be? Has anyone ever asked that question?
No, but I kind of want to use it on the 12 Questions permanently next year.
(Laughs) Well, if it gets a really good answer, maybe you move it. Kind of like the specials at dinner, if it’s really good, they put it on the menu.
Yeah. The middle finger question came from Landon Cassill.
There you go!
And (the face punch) doesn’t have to be because they made you mad on the track. Just maybe you don’t like ‘em.
They could just have a punchable face.
A punchable face, yeah. Who’s got a punchable face? There you go. Ask it that way. And you might actually get an honest answer. Who has the most punchable face? (Laughs)