DARLINGTON, S.C.—If Dale Earnhardt Jr., was searching for an opportunity to put the experience of his recent plane crash behind him, he could not have asked for a greater challenge than the Track too Tough to Tame.
One of the most physically demanding tracks in NASCAR, Darlington Raceway is not for the faint of heart. Earnhardt had a reminder of that when he attended an Xfinity Series test with JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson a couple of months ago and ran about 15 laps. He said the outing didn’t allay his anxiety.
But after two weeks to recover with his family and give his back time to heal, Earnhardt is ready to get back behind the wheel of the No. 8 Chevy for the first time since 2007.
“Noah was faster than me,” Earnhardt said. “It just reminded me of how hard it is to drive these cars, how good these guys that drive them are and how hot and miserable it is inside there—some of the things you forget about while you’re in the booth and being a broadcaster. But it’s a real blessing for me to be able to run at least one race a year and sort of relive my past. That’s kind of why I picked this race at Darlington because of the throwback weekend. It’s such a great celebration of the history of the sport and I wanted to be a part of that. I got to experience it from the broadcast booth last year…so it should be a fun weekend.
“I’m excited just to be back at the track. This is familiar to me—the faces, the people around the track, the media. It’s great to be doing something normal.”
Earnhardt described his plane crash in Elizabethton, Tennessee—about 15-miles from Bristol Motor Speedway—as “a very scary experience”. He was beyond grateful that his wife Amy, daughter Isla and the two pilots escaped the incident and has no reservations of getting back on a plane.
But for the veteran driver, jumping in an Xfinity Series car this weekend was the perfect diversion.
“It was a very tough experience to go through but I try not to think about that too much,” Earnhardt said of the emotions that flooded over him the last couple of weeks. “Things happen for a reason. You just try to learn from it and move on.
“I love my daughter so much and enjoy being around her. Look forward to watching her grow up and experience a lot of things with her going forward. That just made me realize it that much more. I’m thankful and ready to live our lives.”
Although Earnhardt was blown away with the outpouring of support from Junior Nation since the accident, he admitted the response just added pressure on him to perform. Understandably, Earnhardt was “real nervous” about getting back in a race car on Friday since he has not raced competitively since Richmond last September. But he was fifth during first practice and 10th on the speed chart in Happy Hour.
“I like to come into these races at this time in my career and just have fun—smell the smells, hear the sounds, just enjoy driving the car, enjoy racing somebody whether you’re racing for first or last,” Earnhardt said. “Just enjoy what you miss about it and not get into the competitive side of it. Try not to pay attention to the stopwatch.
“It’s hard. You want to be competitive, you want to do well but try not to make it miserable. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. That’s really the focus for me right now is just trying to have fun and not make this more difficult than it needs to be.”
Earnhardt is enjoying his second career as an analyst with NBC Sports. After 22 years behind the wheel, winning two Busch Series titles and 50 races in NASCAR’s top two tours, he feels blessed to continue living on his own terms.
“Really man, it’s about getting up in the morning and going over to Isla’s crib,” Earnhardt said. “Me and Amy wake up and lay there waiting for Isla to wake up and as soon as I hear her making noises, I run in there and get her out of bed. She’s so excited to see you and excited for what’s getting ready to happen in the day and getting her bottle.
“It’s hard to leave her. It’s hard to leave her and go do a hobby. It’s hard to prioritize anything over your daughter on a typical day. So a lot of times I’m just sitting there talking to her about balls or slides or pets are whatever she sees around her that she wants to play with and do. Me and Amy just spend a lot of time trying to get her educated about what’s going on around her.”