DARLINGTON, S.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. faced the media on Friday afternoon at Darlington Raceway not wanting to have any discussion on the plane crash he and his family lived through two weeks earlier.
His sole focus was on getting back in the driver’s seat and turning laps at race pace once again.
Earnhardt is driving in NASCAR this weekend for just the second time since hanging up his helmet from full-time driving in November of 2017 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Notably, he’s piloting his own No. 8 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, carrying a throwback scheme that his father – Dale Earnhardt – drove in 1975, when the senior Earnhardt made his Cup Series debut.
It all adds up to an overarching feeling of gratefulness for Earnhardt, a two-time Xfinity Series champion who now serves as an analyst and commentator for NBC Sports.
“It’s just a real blessing for me to be able to run at least one race a year and be able to relive my past,” said Earnhardt Jr. “That’s kind of why I picked this race at Darlington, is because of the throwback weekend. It’s such a great celebration of the history of the sport, and I wanted to … I wanted to be more a part of that. I got to experience it from the broadcast booth last year and I thought, ‘man, I’m getting to run a race each year. Why don’t I just go to Darlington and do something fun with a throwback car?
“That’s what we did here, and it’s cool to be able to draw some awareness to not only dad’s story, but Ed Negre and Norman Negre, the guys that owned that race car that dad drove in 1975.”
The last time Earnhardt drove in the Xfinity Series, he led 96 laps and finished fourth at Richmond (Va.) Raceway last September. It was a performance that could have won him a race that evening.
This weekend at Darlington, Earnhardt admitted it may not be as simple to contend as he made it look at Richmond.
“I know I’ve run a bunch of Cup races here, but these cars are so different than the Cup cars,” Earnhardt noted. “When Joey Logano ran at Chicago, he said many times during the week that he just wasn’t ever really comfortable until about halfway through the race. It finally started to click because of the difference in how the Cup cars and Xfinity cars drive, but this year, it’s very extreme between the two.
“So I think that it’s going to be probably halfway through the race before I have any kind of real understanding of what I need to be doing or where I need to be running … and that’s going to make for an interesting process in practice all day long,” he added. “I picked a real hard track to go to. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, picking this place, but it’s throwback weekend. It’s hard not to want to be a part of that.
“But yeah, this was probably the worst track in terms of difficulty and challenge and heat and being uncomfortable that I could have chosen.”
That difficulty level has, Earnhardt admitted, left a sense of nervousness on his psyche going into the weekend.
“Of course I’m nervous,” he said. “I never was not nervous about driving race cars. I’ve raced all my life, but every race, I was just equally as nervous as the last one. Leading into qualifying or practice or … whatever it is, you can’t help but get nervous. It’s a very wild experience being inside these things.”
In spite of that, however, Earnhardt recognizes the importance that Throwback Weekend has had on the sport over its five-year tenure.
“It’s been really fun to watch it grow and people take it more seriously,” Earnhardt said of Darlington’s throwback project. “This was my hope when they started talking about the throwback weekend, was that it would sort of take root and become something of a tradition that we would do every year … and that seems to be what’s going on with it. The best thing about it is that the teams are embracing it. You’ve seen that over the years with the Wood Brothers and Aric Almirola … Kyle Larson, and all these different individuals really going full on into it.
“Looking at Alex Bowman’s social media this week and all the pushes for content that people were creating and delivering on this particular weekend, it has just been a lot of fun and a great experience.”
And though he was, as expected, still asked about the plane crash in Elizabethton, Tenn., two weeks earlier, Earnhardt quickly deflected any lengthy conversation about that subject.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “It was a very scary experience and we’re just happy to have a weekend like this to look forward to. I’m just trying to get back to doing my job as a broadcaster and working with NBC and all the things that, you know, we’re excited about and happy about in our lives.
“I’m ready to focus on all those things and get back to business here at the track.”