Dale Earnhardt Jr. Interview: No Crying In The Autograph Line, Please

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, waves to fans as he walks across the stage during driver introductions prior to the start of the NASCAR Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

In our first '12 Questions' interview of 2012, Earnhardt Jr. tells us about the one thing that always makes him nervous.

For the third year, SB Nation will bring you a "12 Questions" interview with a different NASCAR driver every Wednesday. And who better to kick off this year's series – and be the first driver to answer the new version of the 12 Questions – than Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

SBN: What percent of your career races can you actually remember? Like if I said, "Hey, remember that Pocono race from eight years ago...?"

DEJ: If you brought it up, maybe. I'd say 20 percent of 'em.

SBN: Just 20 percent?

DEJ: Maybe 25.

SBN: Well, what happens to the rest?

DEJ: They just disappear. I don't know (chuckles).

SBN: Can you remember all of your wins, though?

DEJ: Yeahhhhh. Yeah, pretty much.

SBN: What was the first win you got in any type of racing?

DEJ: The first win was racing my Late Model at Myrtle Beach. It was twin 50s. We'd usually run a 100-lap feature, but it rained the week before, so they split the next weekend in half and made twin 50s. And I won the first one.

SBN: What can you remember about it?

DEJ: The guy who was the track champion at the time, Kevin Prince, had caught me on the last lap and tried to run into the back of me in the middle of the corner. And I was like driving my ass off, trying not to let him catch me, but he caught me and was running me down.

I was like, "He's gonna wreck me and I'm gonna miss out on my first win!" He hit me barely, but we ended up winning the race. And he won the second 50-lapper.

SBN: Who is a clean driver in NASCAR you enjoy racing with?

DEJ: Jimmie (Johnson). The guy is kind of clean as a whistle in this sport.

SBN: Oh yeah?

DEJ: Well, wouldn't you say?

SBN: I don't know. It's tough to judge, not being in the car.

DEJ: Yeah, I mean, well...I don't know. What do you think? You watch the races.

SBN: No, I honestly can't tell.

DEJ: Really? All right. I mean, there's dozens of those. Jimmie, Tony Stewart . ..I love racing Tony, although you don't want to race him too much – especially early in the race. He gets sort of upset about that – which I do, too. I kind of agree with him.

But when it's late in the race and you get an opportunity to race a guy like that, who you know is going to give it everything he's got .. .there are dozens of drivers who you're fine racing with.

SBN: On the flip side, how about a driver who always seems to race you hard or hold you up?

DEJ: AJ Allmendinger is really hard to pass. He races really, really hard for every position. And you know, that's his right. But it's very frustrating at times.

Ryan Newman used to be the world's worst about racing the shit out of everybody (laughs). But he's not the same anymore.

SBN: No?

DEJ: I don't know, yeah. He picks and chooses his battles a little differently these days.

SBN: What's your personal code of conduct on the track?

DEJ: Basically, it has to do with whatever happened the last time I was dealing with that person.

SBN: How does that work? You have an encyclopedia in your head of all the most recent incidents?

DEJ: Yeah, oh yeah. You form pretty strong opinions about the guys you compete against. You're all very competitive; you're all very selfish. So it's easy to drum up some strong opinions in a second's notice, like, "Argh! THIS guy!"

SBN: Do you have a mental list of drivers who you want to get revenge on?

DEJ: Yeah...

SBN: And how far back does that go?

DEJ: Well, some of the guys have retired. So I'll never have a chance to get 'em! (Bursts out laughing)

SBN: Who is a driver from the past you'd like to be teammates with?

DEJ: Shoot ... Cale Yarborough. I think I could learn a lot from him. He was a tough racer, a hard racer. I think he was probably pretty fun to be around, but also a demanding guy.

SBN: What's the last time you got nervous about something?

DEJ: Going on stage at (Hendrick Media Day). I don't like going on stage. Stages mean "nervous" for me. You know, the most nervous I get is at the quarterly luncheon (for Hendrick employees). Oh man, getting up in front and talking to the people who build my cars is the worst. I get so damn nervous.

SBN: You do a lot of appearances and autograph sessions, as most drivers do. What's an awkward encounter with a fan that sticks out to you?

DEJ: Well, every once in awhile I've seen some women, uh, get upset...

SBN: 'Upset?' Like they cry when they meet you or something?

DEJ: Yeah. Really rare, but it's happened once or twice. Anyway, we were at the (NASCAR Preview fan fest) at the Hall of Fame, and a man got upset. A big guy!

SBN: Nooooo....!

DEJ: Yeah! I was like, "Dude!" He was like, "Ohhhhhhhhh, damn!" (imitating crying voice)

SBN: And this was a manly man?

DEJ: It looked like this was a guy who could hold his shit together! But he just fell out. I was like, "Wow." I couldn't believe that.

SBN: OK, you'll have to play along with this next one – if you had to be either a NASCAR broadcaster or a high-ranking NASCAR official after your career was over, which would you rather be?

DEJ: Broadcaster, most definitely. Being a broadcaster, you're sort of free; I'd sort of have more control over my own life. Watching (NASCAR VP of competition Robin) Pemberton and those guys, man, they gotta be here, here and here, and then it's like, "OK, we need you to tackle this now, and then tackle this next." Being a broadcaster, man, you just sort of paint from a blank canvas, in a way.

SBN: What's a question you get asked all the time that you're tired of answering?

DEJ: "What are the things you and your team are going to change to get better?"

SBN: Dude! I ask you that like every week!

DEJ: Yeah, but I don't know what we're going to change! It's not like it's something you put together, where you take parts off and put new parts on. You don't really change anything. We're just going to go back to the track and see if we can do it better than we did last year.

(Crew chief) Steve (Letarte) will change some people around – like he didn't like this guy, or this guy isn't working out, or somebody left or whatever – and that might have an effect on things. But I don't really know what we're going to change.

SBN: But I think the reason people ask those kind of questions is because you look at a guy like Brad Keselowski, whose team changed something over the summer and suddenly got hot.

DEJ: What'd they change?

SBN: I don't know.

DEJ: I don't either. I don't think they changed anything. They just sort of found something – something that worked. They were just smarter.

SBN: OK. My last question is this: "What question should I ask the next guy?"

DEJ: Oh man, damn. I wish I knew who it was.

SBN: Well, it's not set in stone yet, but I was thinking someone like Joey Logano.

DEJ: Oh, OK. Then I'd like to know, "What's retirement age?" How long does a young guy like that think he'll drive for?

SBN: Good one, thanks.

DEJ: No problem.

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