NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is real and raw, a self-professed normal guy who doesn't get why he's such a big deal. A humble superstar (if there ever was such a thing), Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday he honestly doesn't understand the fascination with his life.
"To me, I feel completely, utterly normal," he said, sporting a thick red beard that accounted for several weeks of growth. "I do everything everybody else does. The things I'm interested in are the same things guys my age are interested in. I sat on the computer and played ‘Call of Duty' [a popular game] until 2 in the morning last night - with who knows who - from all over the country."
Some of those people included six buddies Earnhardt Jr. met online. They know who he is, he said, "but they don't give me shit about it. They don't ask me if I'm ready for next year."
Online, inside his new home, is where Earnhardt Jr. feels most comfortable. He's practically an addict for the iRacing simulation game, where he said he holds the No. 1 ranking out of roughly 15,000 players (and added he earned it with no freebies).
"Hell, I'm there every day," he said. "Every damn day that I'm home, I'm on that damn thing. I just take a break every 30 minutes to play some ‘Call of Duty' and go shoot some people and them I'm back to racing."
In fact, Earnhardt Jr. said he had a "big race tonight" which caps the 25-week pro series season. The pro series, he said, is the top 250 players on the game. Because he missed a couple events due to conflicts, he expected to finish sixth in the points.
iRacing, which Earnhardt Jr. has long touted but has no endorsement deal for (he just flat-out likes the game and wants it to succeed), features complex setups and realistic handling in the cars.
He said his personal record is roughly 180 wins in 300 races, and added that he even races during the Sprint Cup season (the big iRacing event on Wednesday; the Cup race on Sunday).
Again, he repeated in regard to the fans who think he leads a crazy life, "that's normal!"
Even if Earnhardt Jr. isn't sure why he's so popular (and it should be obvious just reading this story that much of the reason has to do with how real and down-to-earth he is), he understands why fans are so passionately loyal.
For that, he just invokes his own love for the Washington Redskins.
"We've had the Carolina Panthers here for a couple years, and I wish them well, but I wouldn't trade them for the ‘Skins," he said. "It's been hard to be a ‘Skins fan, and it's been probably hard to be a Dale Jr. fan the last couple years.
"But every year something happens that you hope is going to be the catalyst, whether it's a coaching change or a new player coming in the draft. And I think that's the same way it is for NASCAR fans, I'm just guessing, that every year they hold out hope."
And is there hope for this year?
"We did make some changes and I feel pretty good about them," he said. "We have to rebound, you know?"