Earnhardt consistently ranked as racing’s most popular driver during his heyday, an athlete who appealed beyond diehard fans. Earnhardt’s rock star status remains in tact as he’s made a seamless transition into the NBC broadcast booth since he walked away from driving full-time in 2017.
Earnhardt has been a breath of fresh air to NASCAR broadcasts much like former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has been in CBS Sports’ No. 1 NFL booth.
Earnhardt’s next assignment brings him to Texas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s races, highlighted with the NASCAR Cup Series’ AAA Texas 500 on Sunday.
TMS ranks as one of Earnhardt’s favorite tracks. It’s the site of Earnhardt’s first career Xfinity Series win in 1998 and first career Cup win in 2000.
“It’s a pretty special place for me,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt went on to talk about a number of topics with the Star-Telegram, ranging from what to expect this weekend to his budding broadcast career.
When I say Texas Motor Speedway, what kind of racing comes to your mind? “I think the racing there should be great. It’s always been a pretty fun race track. They re-configured Turns 1 and 2, changed things quite a bit for whatever reason. I don’t know why they really did that, but it’s just a fun race track. It’s a good market that loves supporting the race track. We’ve always seemed to do well as a sport in Texas. And my wife’s from Texas, so we always enjoy going there.”
You’re also a fan of the Washington Redskins. Do you leave that apparel at home this weekend in Cowboys country? “Well, the way things are going with those guys this season, it’s hard to wear anywhere.”
Going back to racing, who do you like in this year’s Chase to win the championship? “There’s a fantasy league me and a lot of the other NBC folks are part of. In that league, when the playoffs start, you have to pick who you think wins the championship and my selection back at the start was Denny Hamlin. I just felt he had a great season even before the Chase started and he’s due to win a championship. He’s done about everything else except win a championship.
“It’s not as clear cut as it’s been in years past. In the last several years, a guy dominated but this year started hot for Kyle Busch, then got hot for Martin Truex Jr., then got hot for Denny Hamlin, then Kevin Harvick got his win. There was someone new at the top every few weeks, so it’s really hard to pick one guy. That’s a good thing for the sport to have so much parity, but I like Denny and feel pretty good about that pick.”
Has staying in the sport as an analyst filled the racing void? “Well, I don’t think you’ll ever find anything to replace what racing gave me in my life. I never expected to and I never thought I would find anything that was equal in terms of the challenges and adrenaline and rewards and so forth. But I didn’t think broadcasting would be as much as it’s been. Everything about this as a whole has exceeded expectations. It’s been a really nice reward for me personally and it does keep me going to the race track. I didn’t know how it was going to work, but I like being able to go to the track and be around the action. I’m having fun. My wife seems to be happy, so we’ll keep doing it.”
You seem like a natural in the booth. Has it been easy to be yourself? “Yeah, that’s probably the easiest thing to do. I like that I don’t have to be so self aware to put on a front cause I wouldn’t be too good at that. My boss who hired me at NBC told me, ‘Be who you’d be on the couch watching the race with your friends.’ If I have a real genuine reaction, I’m not afraid to express that. The way I do the job is always going to be changing, though. I think it’ll be hard to stay consistent. Over the years as you learn more and get more comfortable, some things are going to get better.”
Finally, you’re one of the few athletes who has managed to stay just as popular in retirement as their playing days. How important is that for you? “For me to be of value to my partners like Nationwide and Mountain Dew and Chevy, I needed to be doing something to create some value. I think the broadcasting opportunities fit that perfectly.
“But I still focus on elevating our drivers and raising the profile of the sport. The drivers on track — they’re the stars.”