Dale Earnhardt Jr. has plenty going for him. When he's not driving at close to 200 mph—legally—he's filming a cameo in a Will Ferrell movie or having dinner with Jay Z and Beyonce in Monaco.
What the racing superstar doesn't have is a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. His latest title pursuit begins at the Geico 400 on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet. Although he's winless in 2013, he's eighth among the 12 drivers who qualified for the 10-race Chase, NASCAR'S version of the playoffs.
"[Not winning is] real disappointing, and you beat yourself up a little bit because you definitely wanna go to Victory Lane in every race," he said. "We're running good [though], and when you're running good, it's a little easier to take being absent from Victory Lane."
In an exclusive interview, RedEye caught up with the 38-year-old at the Fairmont Hotel last month to talk minorities in racing, Danica Patrick and when he feels like punching someone in the face.
What can NASCAR do to draw more urban fans?
I think the drivers themselves really have to showcase their personalities, get out there and be willing to open themselves up a little bit when they get the opportunity to do any kind of media. They need to try to showcase that personality and show what they have that's different. Fans choose, whether it be sports teams or athletes or whatever, based on how they relate to that individual person. It's just something that they like that they do, or that they both have in common, whether that be what they eat or whatever, anything. It's about delving into a little bit more than what we do on Sunday and what it's like to drive a car.
Speaking of opening up, you have a personal account but haven't tweeted. What's the holdup?
I don't know that I will [get on]. We just created [@dalejr] to keep it from falling into anyone else's hands. I use Twitter and all our social media accounts to showcase our partnerships, but I don't' really like to talk about what I'm doing on a daily basis. I'm using it in the way I want to use and having success to reach my fans through our partners and through our racing programs. But do I need to be on there at 9 o'clock at night talking about how the Twenty One Pilots record is really good and getting cussed because I didn't answer somebody's question? I don't know enough about it to even complain about it.
How do you see the efforts to attract minority drivers progressing?
I think they're going pretty good. You're always looking to do more creative things to appeal to different demographics. And one of the things that's been positive has been how they're bringing up drivers through the diversity program. There's a lot of good talents with real genuine potential to succeed coming up through the K&N series. These guys are winning races and doing impressive things inside these cars, and that's good to see because the talent to drive a car doesn't know the color of skin or race. I think you have it or you don't. It's characteristics like just raw feel for a car, car control, peripheral vision, all kinds of things, being able to see out the back of your head, just different things that really build, create and mold a race car driver. And there are some of these guys that have it and they're able to showcase it in good equipment.
It's a real slow process, unfortunately. But 20 years ago, 90 percent of the drivers in the field were born and raised in North Carolina. Today, there's [only] a couple guys. The other drivers are from all over the country. Just as that has evolved, [the success of minority drivers] will change as well.
Do you think you'll see a Tiger Woods-type athlete in NASCAR during your racing career?
Maybe not during my career, but I think I'll see it in my lifetime for sure. There's a couple of guys in the K&N series that are tearing it up. [Darrell] Wallace in the truck series has got tons of talent. He's raw, but he has the tools it's gonna take. And just like any other driver, if you're around the right people that can sort of polish the rough edge, then the sky's the limit.
Has there been a noticeable Danica Patrick effect?
Yes. You watch her and see a lot of kids, girls specifically, come up to her and tell her how much of a role model she is for them. Any kind of positive effect she has on the sport is a good thing, and it's easy to see when you look at her in a positive light like I do. I tend to want her to succeed, and I want that for the sport, not only for her, because I think it would be monumental for her to be able to compete well enough to be a factor in events and possibly even winning races.
She's got a ways to go before she's breaking through, but it's not impossible. Everybody goes through that process [of strugggling], and people don't really give her the benefit of the doubt because she's a woman. [Succeeding in NASCAR] is really hard to do, and she came in with no background in stock cars. Even though she raced cars, there's no similarity.
Some say drivers aren't real athletes. How do you feel when you get out of the car after a race?
Like you wanna drink a 5-gallon bucket of water. You just lose a lot of water weight. It's really hot in the car so you sweat a lot. Usually you don't physically get worn out; you don't really feel like you've been lifting weights in a gym, and your arms aren't noodles like you've been doing curls or anything. You just sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat, so you lose a lot of weight, anywhere from 5 to 8 pounds of just water. So you're really thirsty, and it takes a couple of days to put the weight back on.
What can being in great physical condition do for a driver?
If we were to compare ourselves to any athletes, I would compare ourselves to long distance runners. Our races are three and a half to four hours, so to be able to do something physically and mentally and the focus that needs to be maintained over that stretch of time is real similar to that. There's no halftime, no timeouts and there's no break; that's the way you run a marathon. I like to lift weights, but I like to do that for personal reasons, not because I think that makes me a better race car driver. I just like my body to be in better shape as I get older. If race car drivers are to choose a dedicated workout regimen, it would be running on a treadmill or bike, something like that.
Are there drivers who swear by staying in shape?
Yeah, Jimmy Johnson, my teammate, runs 13 miles a day. I mean it's ridiculous. He's spending all this money on these special bikes. [He'll say,] "I bought this new bike, it's 2 grams lighter." And he'll get on that bike with a couple of guys and they'll ride 60 miles after practice on Saturday.
The Blackhawks own Chicago right now. Do you see any similarities between hockey and racing, particularly the fights?
It's just human nature, I think. You get angry. Maybe you've had issues with the same guy over and over. That tends to be how most of these sentiments spill over outside the car and get physical and when the drivers are having confrontations is when something is repeatedly happening between you and a guy, and you've kinda gotta put your foot down.
Have you ever been in a fight in your career?
No, I haven't been in a fight since high school. I'm really nonconfrontational when it comes to that, but everybody has their breaking point, I suppose.
How close have you come?
I don't think there's ever been a time when I've been angry with another driver that I didn't THINK about going over there and punching him in the face. [Laughs.] But you just don't do it.
If you were to win the Chase without winning a race, how would you feel?
It'd be nine-tenths; there'd be something missing. The ultimate prize obviously is the championship, so we'd obviously celebrate. Not having won a race … that would be in every article. Anytime you mention it, that would be the asterisk. It wouldn't be too bad, I guess, to be the champion. I'd rather go through that than come as close as Carl Edwards did where they basically tied and it came down to wins.
What was it like shooting a video with Jay Z?
I think back on that and still can't believe that happened. It almost happened so fast that we didn't really get to enjoy it. His people called our people and said "do you want to be in the video?" Of course we said yes. We were racing in New Hampshire, I got on a plane when the race was over and flew straight to Monaco. I got off the plane at 8 o'clock in the morning. I couldn't sleep because I was so excited. We shot the video all day long, deep into the night. We had dinner, stayed up till 3 in the morning, got on the plane and came home. So I was in Monaco for 18 hours or whatever.
What were your impressions of him?
He's a total, professional, straight-up businessman all the time. But when we were cutting up and shooting the video, he was really candid, very easy to chat with and approachable. I walked away happy to have met him and found out what kind of person he was. He's definitely a positive role model, not only for guys who love his music but for businesspeople. He's killin' it.
Did you meet Beyonce?
She did walk up in the middle of her shopping trip, and it was really nice. She joined us at dinner and she was really, really pleasant.
Do people see you at red lights and want to race you?
Nobody looks beside them at red lights anymore. I do, but I'm looking at them and they're never looking at me. We were driving down the road the other day and I drove past this guy that had a Dale Jr. hat on. I was trying to get his attention just to say hey 'cause I thought it'd trip him out, but he never looked. [Laughs.]
Chris Sosa is RedEye's sports editor.
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