12 Out Of 12: An Interview With Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's Most Popular Driver

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has some interesting ideas for how to make NASCAR qualifying more entertaining.

For each of the last 38 weeks, SB Nation has brought you an interview with a NASCAR driver in which we asked the same 12 questions. Our interview series concludes for 2010 with the sport's most popular driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr. During an appearance on behalf of Diet Mountain Dew at a recent Phoenix Coyotes hockey game, Earnhardt Jr. took time out to give us his answers.

What's the best race you've ever driven?

DEJ: I was racing at Richmond in either '98 or '99 (actually Sept. 1999), and I beat Mark Martin in the Busch Grand National race. I passed him on the outside to win. He was in the Winn-Dixie car and was almost unbeatable every time he showed up. That was when I first really thought to myself, ‘Damn, I might be able to make a living out of this.'

Who is the most talented driver in NASCAR?

DEJ: Most talented in the sport? The most talented driver in the sport is...(thinks for a moment)...it's either Jimmie (Johnson) or Kyle (Busch), probably. Jimmie, I've been around him and in certain situations and seen his car control. Same thing with Kyle.

Kyle gets in Trucks, Nationwide – several cars that drive differently – and is fast. Even going from car to car in the same weekend doesn't seem to really faze him. He just jumps into things and can make it work.

Kyle's probably the better raw talent, just pure driving. Jimmie is really intricate in his thinking process on the track. Jimmie is really clever. You know how he's kind of witty in what he says? He's that way in his driving, you know what I mean? He's smart and quick in his decisions in the race car.

What's the best time for a fan to approach you for an autograph at the racetrack?

DEJ: I don't mind at all being approached when I'm 10 or more feet away from the car. If I'm anywhere away from the car, I'm fine. That's completely expected. But when I'm next to the car or within 10 feet of it, I'm thinking about that or working in that direction. And that's just something I'd rather be able to work on than be interrupted, really, by anybody.

What's the worst track on the NASCAR circuit?

DEJ: I don't like Sonoma. I just don't think these cars were meant to go left and right. There's nowhere to pass, and we all run over the top of each other and wreck the shit out of each other to get positions. And it's fun if you get lucky and not get wrecked. But you normally get run over and get pissed off at people that are actually pretty good people, you know? It pits us all against each other. I grew up racing ovals, and I'm a purist in that form. I just think we ain't supposed to be fuckin' running them kind of tracks, you know what I mean? (laughs) SBN: That's fun to watch, though. DEJ: Well yeah, I'd tune in and watch it, too, cause you know somebody's going to get dumped.

What's something people may not know or understand about you?

DEJ: I mean, I've always felt like a lot of people's misconceptions of me have to do with how I grew up. I grew up poor, and I grew up rich. I think some people who have never met me have a misconception that when I was living with my father when he was successful, that I was somehow adversely affected by his success or the money he had and was making at the time.

I think that carries on into when I started racing Late Models. Sure, it was better than most guys – some guys didn't have fuckin' race cars. But people assume that I had the best car, the best motors, the best help. And it wasn't like that at all. I don't hear that a lot, but if there is a misconception, it's probably that part.

Mainly, I think people assume I had it better than what was reality. But I had it good; I don't want to complain or piss off anybody who was providing for me back then – those people who are still around. But it wasn't all roses.

If you were in charge of NASCAR, what would you change?

DEJ: Well, there's nothing that jumps in my mind that I've been thinking about for a long time, like, ‘Oh, this is something we really need to have.' I like going back to the lunchtime starts, and I think the fact that they're so fuckin' hardcore about it that we're going to do it at Homestead says a lot.

Everything we do needs to be geared toward making the sport more accessible to the fans – the rules of the sport, how the race plays itself out, how people qualify into the races – everything needs to be as easy to understand as possible.

One of the things I've always struggled with is how people qualify into the Daytona 500. I've been in this sport for years, and I don't know what the fuck's going on in them (qualifying) races! I'm like, 'Yeah, I want to pull for this underdog, but I don't know what he's got to accomplish!' You know?

I was thinking of some ideas of how they could actually be in a race of their own. Have three qualifying races. You have the 36 guys who make it on (points). Split them into two qualifying races, like normal, but then take the guys who have to race their way in and give them their own race. They get more exposure, their sponsors get more exposure, the fans get more bang for their buck.

Actually, you could do that with the go-or-go-home guys every week before the Busch race. Have a little hooligan race. I don't know if you were around, but the hooligan races back at Charlotte in the ‘80's, God almighty, they were awesome! We loved ‘em, everybody loved ‘em – as a fan! I was a fan, you know?

It would make it easier to understand how a car makes it into the Daytona 500 and make qualifying more understandable for every race weekend. And I think it makes it funner to watch – you've got to make it funner to be involved as a fan.

And another thing, too – this may be a stretch, but you tell me. The NFL is scoring record numbers now in TV ratings. There's 20 million people playing fantasy football. I watch every fucking game if I'm home on Sunday – every game, because I've got a player in every game.

Don't you think that affects television ratings? I do. Well then, as silly as it sounds, doesn't NASCAR need a solid fantasy platform? I don't know what it is now, but obviously it's not effective enough to improve ratings. I mean, think about it: If 20 million people are fantasy football guys, they're home clicking from game to game to game. They're going to watch the 1 o'clock, they're going to watch the 4 o'clock, they're going to watch the 8 p.m. game. They're going to watch on Thursday – because they've got a guy.

Even though it's a pain in the ass to sit there and watch the Titans play the Browns, you want to know if Chris Johnson's going to run for 150 yards – and you're going to watch every play until you find out.

I think that's some of where their ratings come from. So that's why NASCAR needs a solid fantasy platform that draws the viewer in that aspect. Maybe you can't, because we're just one game; maybe it can't make the kind of impact it can for the NFL. But I think it has a tremendous effect on their TV ratings, because one guy is watching four games a week instead of watching one – the one your favorite team is in.

If a new driver came to you for advice, who is one driver you'd tell him to learn from and one driver you wouldn't?

DEJ: I'd tell ‘em to go learn from Mark Martin, and I'd tell ‘em to not do anything I ever did. SBN: Why's that? DEJ: I don't know. Well...I just don't want to name any names in that category, so I named myself (laughs).

Who is the one driver you most admire outside of NASCAR?

DEJ: Damn, that's tough to say. I don't know, man. Shhhhhit! I wish Michael Schumacher would come try NASCAR. That'd be cool. With everything he's done and how professional he's remained through it all, I think he's an awesome role model as far as work ethic and tenacity. He just seems like he knows how to get it done. He's probably that guy for a lot of people, but I don't mind being in that big group. SBN: I heard he's an asshole though. DEJ: Damn, that sucks to hear. I hope that's not true.

How much longer would you like to keep driving?

DEJ: Til I'm 50 or 55, that'd be awesome. SBN: Really? 55? DEJ: Yeah. Sure. At some point, I'll go to the Nationwide Series and then maybe I'll try trucks. Before you quit, you've got to try it all, don't you think? I don't think you ever get to where you can quit. I don't think you can just stop and go sit at the house. I know there are probably things I could keep my hands busy in, but they're not as fun.

What's the first thing you do when you get home at the end of a long race weekend?

DEJ: I grab my iPad and see how I'm doing in fantasy football, and then I turn on the most important game that I'm involved in. (laughs) If I get home late, I watch the Thursday running of The Office and the Sunday running of Eastbound and Down. SBN: Kenny Powers, huh? DEJ: Yeah, (the recently completed season of E&D) was good. It was not as good as the first season, but it had some good points.

Who wins Sprint Cup in 2015?

DEJ: 2015? Shit! My darkhorse is going to be Brad Keselowski, but...I'm going to go for me. I think I'm going to win it. So I'll pick me, and then Brad Keselowski as the darkhorse.

Would you rather be known as a great driver or great person?

DEJ: A great person. That reaches all facets of your being, you know? Not just your job. When you say great person, that includes your family, your friends. I've already done enough to have earned ‘good driver,' so if I can be known as a great person and a good driver, that's better than only being a great driver.

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