What I’ll remember about covering Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At the end of a Richmond race in May 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into the garage, climbed out of his car and disappeared into his hauler. He had finished a disappointing 19th and was particularly upset about the result that night.

In those days, I covered Earnhardt like he was the home team — meaning he warranted a story regardless of the race outcome. So I waited 15 minutes or so, but he never emerged. Finally, someone from the team came out to say he had already left.

That was really surprising. Earnhardt always talked — always, always, always. He talked after good races, ho-hum races and even those terrible races in the Lance McGrew Era.

So when he didn’t comment at Richmond, I made it the subject of a column. The premise was basically this: Earnhardt declining to talk shows he may have reached a new low in his frustrating slump.

But here’s the thing: Even that night, it was never Earnhardt’s intention to leave without comment.

I know that because I got an email the next day with an unusual subject line: “yo, its Jr here.”

Huh? Was someone pranking me? Earnhardt had never reached out to me before that.

It began: I didn’t know of any other way to contact you. I guess I could have asked Mike (Davis), but I just read your column and got this addy from the bottom of the page.

The email address looked legit, so I read on. Earnhardt wrote he was certainly upset about the result and wanted to talk with Steve Letarte in the hauler afterward — but he did not mean to leave without speaking to the media. He had asked someone if there were any reporters waiting outside and was told no by mistake, so he went out the side door closest to the exit tunnel and left the track.

Earnhardt swore he would have commented had he known any reporters were waiting.

I promise I didn’t refuse a word with the media, he wrote. I just wanted to let you know that I wouldn’t disrespect you or any of your colleagues like that. If you don’t mind passing that along to whomever you think it would concern, I would appreciate it. See ya in Darlington.

Think about that for a moment. Most drivers wouldn’t give a second thought about declining comment to a reporter after a bad race — let alone feeling bad enough about the perception to reach out and clear the air.

But the most popular driver in NASCAR? That attitude is indicative of how he treated the media throughout his career. If any driver could have gotten away with being rude over the years, it was Earnhardt. Except he was the opposite.

For those in the NASCAR media, lucky us. The biggest superstar of this era has been respectful, courteous and understanding of the role reporters play. He has given some of those most deeply thoughtful and introspective answers many of us will ever hear. And he always treats media members like peers instead of peons, which is remarkable for someone of his celebrity.

Earnhardt could have turned out to be an ass to the NASCAR media and the coverage wouldn’t have changed. Just look at how Tiger Woods treated the golf media: Even though Woods was a jerk, his value to the sport demanded endless stories.

Fortunately for us, that’s just not in Earnhardt’s personality. It’s not part of his makeup to think he’s above anyone else, and it showed in his actions time and again over the years.

For example: On pit road after a race, he would often call out to reporters with a grin as the interview concluded.

“Everyone travel safely!” he’d say while walking away. “Y’all have a good week!”

When ESPN’s Bob Pockrass started to leave as a post-race interview wound down at Texas earlier this year, Earnhardt yelled, “Hey!”

Pockrass stopped and looked back.

“Happy Easter!” Earnhardt said with a grin and a wave. “I’m not gonna see y’all for two weeks!”

But more than just being cordial, Earnhardt scored points with reporters for his detailed answers. In an era where the media increasingly relies on page views, Earnhardt was a frequent clickbait topic. That would irritate and annoy many an athlete, because their social media posts and quotes get blown up and taken out of context in the name of clicks.

If Earnhardt was upset, though, he didn’t show it. He understood reporters’ jobs, why they wrote the things they did and didn’t make an issue of it.

But to really see a glimpse into Earnhardt’s character, just look at how he approached his answers to different reporters. Earnhardt never seemed to play favorites. An unknown blogger nervously asking a question at their first race was just as likely to get a stellar, memborable answer as the beat reporters who Earnhardt encountered every week.

I was fascinated by that, and once asked him privately whether he tried harder to give good answers based on who was asking the question. He looked at me, puzzled.

“Why would I do that?” he said.

It didn’t occur to Earnhardt, because he treats everyone with respect. Whether he knew a reporter or was seeing them for the first time, he consciously tried to give his best answer.

I’m telling you all this for two reasons. First, I’m not sure we’ll ever get that fortunate again. And second, I want to write it down in order to look back and remember what it was like to cover Earnhardt during his driving career.

Look, there are still personable drivers and accommodating drivers and interesting drivers remaining in NASCAR. But Earnhardt may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime package in terms of his star power, quotability, accessibility and authenticity.

To say he’ll be missed by the media doesn’t really do it justice, and it’s also premature. Only years from now will we realize how good we had it covering a uniquely genuine athlete who never acted like he was better than those who sought to make a living writing about his story.

23 Replies to “What I’ll remember about covering Dale Earnhardt Jr.”

  1. Thanks, Jeff. I am going to miss the Dale, Jr. clickbait articles almost as much as I will miss the thoughtful articles about him from journalists like you and Bob Pockrass. Wow. I need more Kleenex for this weekend.

  2. His personality and sincerity comes out in his Periscope comments. I hope he doesn’t stop commenting. He is truly a treasure (as is Amy).

    1. Thank you for echoing what we old fans saw many years ago, through the lowest of times to the highest times, we love our driver.

  3. You hit the nail on the head – authentic and genuine. Dale Jr will be missed on many, many levels.

  4. Your article points out the very reason he is so popular…aside from what he does on the track. For someone who has had to live in the public eye from day one, has had to deal publicly with the loss of his father and the comparisons to him, he has done so with dignity and honor. I know his Daddy is proud of him.

  5. Think you captured his essence perfectly, explaining why he is, and will remain, if unofficially, the sports most popular and beloved driver.

  6. So well written ! Thank you for all you have done to bring him into the homes of fans like me! He will be missed on the track but I’m hoping you will find time to check in with him from time to time to catch us up on his life adventures

  7. DaleJr thinks of himself as a serf…… actually he is a prince who has become the true benevolent King. IMHO

  8. Jeff,
    Just like watching Jr grow and mature in his sport, we’ve come to know your style and appreciate your very thoughtful approach. You originated the now famous “tweet-ups” where all of us got to know you more personally, and we watched you grow as well. It seems you are like Jr. jn that you respect all our thoughts and opinions. Thanks for writing such a touching article on our Most Popular Person who happens to also be a driver. He will never be replaced.

  9. Ok my friend, twice tonight you have had me misty eyed????. There is so much to get used to in the coming off season. Excellent writing as always!

  10. Thank You Jeff.
    Absolutely amazing that EVERY media member I know of has nothing but high praise for “Mr. ‘Ralph’ (as Amy calls him) Dale Earnhardt Jr.”

    P.S. I noticed when you were talking about the email he called himself Jr., NOT Junior. I know the correct way when not using his first name is ‘supposedly’ the latter but I thought I had read somewhere, sometime he preferred Jr. Anyway that’s the way I write it. ????

  11. After reading this article this is what comes to my mind. Dale is your next door neighbor. Dale is your high school buddy. Dale is your pal at your local pub. Dale is an average joe – in a world where few exist anymore. And IMHO, that is what makes him so beloved, cherished & respected by the journalists, his peers and most importantly his fans. Thanks for this article Jeff.
    And Thank You Dale, you will be sorely missed in the sport.

  12. I’ve never heard this story. Just makes me love and respect him even more. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Gluckster,
    Yeap that is mummy nickname for ya. Great article man! Some say it is the end, I say it is the beginning just think how great he will be in the booth with that personality! Can’t wait!

  14. Great job Jeff. This is the way we see Jr from his fans point of view . You just brought it out beautifully as you always do,

  15. Good read Jeff , sums up the way he’s always seemed to come across. Can’t wait to hear him calling races

  16. Great words, Jeff. Proud of you for writing this. Class acts tell the stories of other class acts. Much respect to both of you.

    1. I “ditto” what the last reply says, Dustin Pead. Class acts tell the stories of other class acts. Very heartwarming to read.

  17. You wrapped it up quite concisely Jeff,
    He is the complete package.

    I love the “Gluckster” title!

Comments are closed.