Dale Earnhardt Jr. predicts future for Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson, discusses Chase Elliott’s NASCAR title

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NASCAR is currently ushering in a new era of young talented drivers, specifically Chase Elliott who just won his first career Cup Series championship in addition to his third-straight Most Popular Driver Award. However, before there was Chase Elliott, there was Dale Earnhardt Jr, who claimed the sport’s most popular driver honors 15 times. 

Nowadays, Earnhardt spends his time as a broadcaster as well as a dad to two daughters. CBS Sports caught up with the NASCAR Hall of Famer to discuss a variety of topics ranging from his personal life to everything going on in the sport right now. 

CBS Sports: Congratulations on another successful NASCAR season in the broadcast booth as well as on the birth of your second daughter. How have things been going for you lately? 

Earnhardt: “Yeah the second daughter has certainly created some new challenges at the house and I feel real lucky to be able to be at the house this year to help my wife sort of navigate through this. At this point with Nicole being a month old I feel pretty useless. I don’t feel like that I can really attribute a lot to what’s happening throughout the day. I just kind of hover around and try to see when I can be of help physically, like do something, but at this particular point early in the part of the process the guy really is pretty useless unfortunately. I think once we sort of get to that four month mark that’s when I can get a little more active in feeding and doing things like that but it has sort of let me bond with Isla, our two-and-a-half-year-old because I really have her all day long to sort of allow Amy to focus more on Nicole and so me and Isla are kind of like a little team. Where it was the three of us before now me and Isla are off doing our own thing a lot which is a lot of fun and she recognizes that and knows that dads gonna be available all day long and she knows kind of the things we like to do together and wants to do those things each day and it’s a lot of fun. Isla is two-and-a-half. She’s really changing every single day and picking up a lot of new things. I could go on and on. It’s fun being a dad. There’s a lot to it. I spent all my life putting this off until I turned 40-years-old and started to get serious about becoming a dad and I’m very frustrated with myself to put it off this long in my life. I wish I would have done this many, many years ago so now I’m hammering all my friends who have yet to have kids. Like don’t waste any time man, that’s the greatest thing about life is being a parent and why wait? If you’re married and you know you found that special person that you want to spend the rest of your life with you might as well bring kids into the equation because really it is the best thing about life is raising another child.”

CBS Sports: Family is strong in NASCAR. Your family is one of the most known as are the Elliott’s. Chase Elliott just joined his father Bill as a champion of the sport. What was that like to see him win at Phoenix and become a champion?

Earnhardt: “You probably have experienced this many times in your life when you know somebody and you know that they’re a really good person and you see them succeed. It’s a good feeling because you like to see good things happen to good people. There’s so many things about Chase being the champion that are positives. It’s amazing for the sport. I believe in the health of the sport. I want the sport to be healthy. I want whatever needs to happen to boost the sport, to lift the sport. Him being the champion, being the most popular driver in our sport and also being a champion is nothing but good for NASCAR going forward. So I’m happy about that but I’m more pleased that Chase is such a humble, genuine, down-to-earth, mild-mannered guy and typically you know the good guy doesn’t win, the nice guys don’t always finish first kind of thing. So I was happy for him. He’s came through our program here at JR Motorsports. This race shop you see behind me. He came in here and raced for us for a bit and won us a championship in the Xfinity Series so we feel like we are a part of his journey. We feel like we helped him, along with a lot of other people, get to where he is today. So when he writes his story, however many Cup championships he wins, we’ll be a tiny little part of that. So there’s some pride in that as well for a lot of us here at JR Motorsports.”

CBS Sports: An image that will stand out to everyone was Elliott embracing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson after the Phoenix race. Almost a passing of the torch from one Hendrick driver to another. Alex Bowman is set to take over Johnson’s No. 48 next season but by doing so Hendrick Motorsports is retiring the No. 88. That’s your number. How do you feel about that? 

Earnhardt: “Yeah well a lot of the guys had a lot of involvement in that number and so I’m not that bent out of shape about it to be honest with you. I feel like with Kyle Larson coming in, he needs a rebranding. He needs a fresh start. And I also know that the five number is extremely sentimental to Rick. It’s his first number in the Cup Series. So I understand that the 88, Hendrick Motorsports as a whole doesn’t have a ton of history and equity in the 88 number itself and I was assuming that someday that that number could go away. So it’ll be interesting to see where it lands beyond this, who will pick that banner up, that number 88 and continue to try and add to its legacy. It’s got a very rich history in our sport so all that kind of moving around and swapping I was anticipating at some point somewhere down the road. I’m excited for Alex to get into the 48. He’s basically just gonna change the decals on his own car but he followed in my footsteps as he stepped into … the number 88 car at Hendrick Motorsports, and now he takes on an even bigger challenge by putting on the superman’s cape. He’s going to drive the number 48 following Jimmie Johnson which would be tough for anybody but I think that that pressure can motivate and push Alex to even more success.”

CBS Sports: You mentioned Kyle at Team Hendrick. Looking at his championship odds, he opened at 25-to-1 at William Hill Sportsbook and has already moved to 12-to-1 to win the title. Do you think winning a championship in year one is a realistic expectation for Larson and the No. 5 team?

Earnhardt: “Well you know you never say never but I think that it’ll just be good, I think Kyle just needs to go out there and get reacclimated with the sport. If you take a break, whether it’s a couple weeks, if a driver gets an injury or whatever it may be. You really get behind quickly in this sport and I think this season while there may be some successes and some good runs for Kyle, I think it just will be important for him to sort of reacclimate himself with being a part of the sport and getting back into that routine of racing every single week and just find some stability and consistency and try to kind of create a new foundation to build on to maybe one day become a champion. He’s a very talented driver and has a lot of opportunities to win and succeed. A championship is certainly attainable for him but I wouldn’t try to, if I were him, to pay attention to the odds or any of that to try to summarize what the expectations might be for him when it comes to performance. I just think he needs to get out there and try to build this team and try to get some consistency and performance in the car each week.”

CBS Sports: The other big silly season splash was Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin teaming up to form 23XI Racing with Bubba Wallace as the driver. What are your realistic expectations for the No. 23 team in their first year? 

Earnhardt: “My career was in a really bad place around 2009, 2010. I saw no way out, no way forward, no way back to performing and being successful. What my crew chief at the time did, Steve Letarte, he said hey let’s just try to focus on being a top-15 car. I’m coming off a season where I finished outside of the top 20 in points and was very frustrated and not doing well and he said let’s just try to become a top-15 car and we did. We didn’t try harder. We didn’t strive for more. We just focused on trying to get to that point. And when we were steadily, every week running in the top 15 he said ok let’s move that goal forward to becoming a top-10 car and eventually we moved it to becoming a top-5 car, something I never thought might be possible for me was showing up to the racetrack and expecting to finish in the top five and we did. We got to where we were leading the points, in the top two, top three in the points throughout the season, going into the playoffs considered maybe one of the favorites to win the championship. We were accumulating more points at the short tracks in certain years than the other drivers were racing and doing well everywhere, finishing well at the road courses even. It was just really, for me, and my expectations I was extremely taken aback and surprised by the turnaround and it was just a very methodical thing. So I think as the crew chief of that team I would take that approach. Let’s just start here and build upon this and just keep stacking the blocks as we go until eventually one day we’re going to be a team that can go to the racetrack and say top five is where we should finish and make that a reality, go out there and do that. So that’s what happened with me and Steve Letarte which eventually led us to winning races and really having some really great years when I thought that my career was not salvageable. So I think that Bubba is definitely not in that position emotionally. He’s not in a position where he feels like his career isn’t salvageable. He is very excited and very pumped up about this new opportunity but I think that it’s a process to get this team to where they want to be and just try not to get too ahead of yourself.”

CBS Sports: You had to overcome adversity on the track, but also had to overcome adversity off the track when you chose to quit smoking. Tell me about that experience. 

Earnhardt: “Yeah I used to smoke about a pack-and-a-half a day back in my 20s and my 30s. I quit over a decade ago and kept that story for the most part hidden. I wasn’t very proud of it. I was kind of ashamed of it to be honest with you. I tried to hide my habit from everyone that I could and I selfishly kept that a secret even after I’d quit because I was so ashamed. But I got an opportunity to partner with Nicorette a couple years ago and I felt like they have a commitment to help people to quit smoking and this might be a great opportunity for me to try to help somebody quit and I’d need to tell my story so this is a very comfortable place for me to finally tell my story about my quit journey and how challenging it is and be supportive of people now today that are trying to quit. So we have a new campaign, it’s called the start stopping shoutout. You can use the hashtag on social media ‘start stopping shoutout’ and this is for people that have a loved one or someone they care about that they want to quit smoking. So use that hashtag to tell us about that person that you want to quit smoking and you may win an opportunity to get a shoutout from me or another celebrity to help that individual and support that individual on their quit journey to finally be free and be done with smoking for good. And the benefits from that are obvious in your health but also in your social life. All the anxieties, the list goes on and on about what smoking does to us in our own lives and the anxieties that it creates. I would avoid, I would basically plan out my whole day around smoking where I might want to go to an event or to a gathering but if smoking was going to make that difficult I would avoid it. I would take myself out of situations that my friends were apart of because I thought smoking might be a problem there. I would avoid social interaction and engagement. Smoking takes you outside or wherever you have to go to do it. It’s just basically in control of you all day long and a lot of people, some realize it, some maybe don’t realize it. And also if you’re like me and if you’re trying to hide it from somebody you worry whether people can smell it, whether your clothes smell, whether your car smells. If you’re trying to hide it from your family members or people that care about you it makes this very sort of awkward existence in your relationship and so to finally just have that gone, just get rid of it, not have it be a part of your life it’s such a relief and so freeing to be able to do that. I want to help other people experience that. Not only the health benefits down the road that you’re going to have by quitting. It just really makes your life a whole lot better and a whole lot easier.”

CBS Sports: Making a sharp turn before we wrap up. The phrase ‘Raise Hell, Praise Dale’ which you must have heard before. What does it mean to you? 

Earnhardt: “For me it’s like a shoutout to my dad. It is sort of a rally cry for all those Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans. That’s the way they sorta, their mantra, if you will. They’re gonna live life, they’re gonna raise hell and they’re gonna support and celebrate my father and his legacy. That’s kinda what that always has meant to me and I love hearing it. When people say it I think of my dad immediately and know that he would really appreciate people, years after his death, that still really celebrates his life.”



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