Dale Earnhardt Jr. reflects on simple goal that led to successful career

Photo by Harold Hinson Photography

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

FONTANA, Calif. — All Dale Earnhardt Jr. was trying to do was avoid having to get a “real job.” Instead, he got a career with nearly two decades of prosperity that has him on the verge of his 600th start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The 42-year-old Earnhardt will make the milestone start in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. The only active driver with more starts is Matt Kenseth, at 618.

“I wanted to race cars for a living,” he said.  “I wanted to do it well enough to be able to afford to make a living doing it. I didn’t have vision or assume that I was going to make all of the money and success that we have made, but all I really wanted to do was to do it long enough so I didn’t have to get a real job.”

Earnhardt got his first taste of Cup competition in 1999, then the Winston Cup. He drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc., a company founded by his late father and seven-time champion. His cousin, Tony Eury Sr., was his crew chief.

In 2008, he joined Rick Hendrick’s powerhouse organization and picked up nine of his 26 victories with Hendrick Motorsports. Two of his triumphs came in the prestigious Daytona 500 — one with DEI in 2004 and the other with HMS in 2014.

“I’m real thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to stay around and drive for some really great teams,” said the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. “Some really awesome owners. Worked with a lot of amazing crew chiefs and crew members.”

“We have a really great group of guys that we race with in this current situation, we are having so much fun at the race track and really enjoy working with Greg (Ives, crew chief).”

Earnhardt’s first race, however, wasn’t exactly fun. He couldn’t remember where he finished in the 1999 Coca-Cola 600 in his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet, but recalled being terrified in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding his debut.

“Well, we ran… well yeah, I don’t know you know.  I was really nervous,” he said. “I remember sitting on the starting grid or sitting in qualifying for the race and telling Tony (Eury) Jr. [then crew chief] that I would switch with him for a million dollars so he could do this instead of me because I was scared to death.

”Just they had made such a big deal about that whole thing. I don’t even remember what the… they had some kind of a … they called it something Countdown to E Day or some mess.  I forget what it was, but Budweiser made this big promotion about it and it was so much pressure and I was so nervous.”

Earnhardt finished 16th, by the way. But looking back at that first race, Earnhardt doesn’t know what advice he could have given his then-25-year-old self to keep the rookie jitters at bay.

“I don’t know what I could tell myself that would have made much of a difference in how I felt,” he said. “I don’t think I could have calmed myself any more with any kind of advice. It would have been difficult to make any difference, I guess, it was so crazy.

“I was overwhelmed with the weight of the situation and how much attention it was getting and it made it really hard to soak in and enjoy it I guess, but we just wanted to do so well and not fail.”

Earnhardt will take the green flag in 18th as he hopes for a good day in his milestone race on Sunday. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has yet to crack the top 10 this season.

“I really like Fontana and I wish that we could have a good weekend is all,” said Earnhardt, who qualified third last week at Phoenix. “We have kind of been struggling a little bit to put together a good race this year and we qualified well last week, but didn’t run as well as we wanted to.”

“We will keep processing what we are learning and keep showing up every week and put it together eventually.”

The Kannapolis, North Carolina native has never won at Fontana, but has finished no worse than 12th in his last six starts at the two-mile track. In 24 career visits, he has seven top 10s; five top 5s.

“I really, really like this race track,” Earnhardt said. “Obviously, you are running all over the race track, a lot of different grooves. That makes it a lot of fun as a driver.  Looking forward to some fun this weekend and hopefully, a good result.”

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