As he battles for the top spot in the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR's biggest star tells us what it takes to live up to the legend of the late, great No. 3—and become a legend himself.
Men's Fitness: How do you physically prep for a race?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:I do lift some weights from time to time but that's just for fun more than anything, just to feel good. A lot of guys, I think it would be important to run on the treadmill and have some endurance. Biking or anything like that would be a big help. Swimming, even. But hydrating is most important. The car gets really hot, 120 to 130°, so you lose about eight pounds of water weight each race. I drink a lot of water, or mix it with orange Gatorade.
How do you keep your mental focus?
It becomes instinct. The car demands it. We’re going so fast, it’s dangerous, and you don’t know what moves a guy’s going to make next. You hit the track and the risk of spinning out and damaging the car puts a lot of responsibility on you, so you have to be plugged in from the minute you mash the gas.
What makes a great driver?
The best drivers think about it all day and stay in constant communication with their team about how to get better. Out on the track, you can spot a guy who’s smart about decisions and one who makes the same mistakes over and over. Look at three to four years of races and you’ll see the same guys getting themselves—or someone else—into trouble.
I think it’s about how you’re raised—your values and morals help you make split decisions. Everybody who comes into NASCAR is going to be rough around the edges at the start. They're going to tear up some cars. But if they don't grow out of that quickly, they’ll lose a lot of respect in the industry.
Do you try to psych other drivers out?
Not really. There’s never a mano-a-mano moment when one guy tries to con another. You really run to the physical grip of the tire in the car all the time. That's how you run the quickest lap you can run. You just try to get around him as fast as possible, while he does everything he can to keep from wrecking the car underneath him.
Do your racing instincts kick in in regular traffic?
They used to. When I was young I was a lot more reckless out on the highway than I am now. I get enough adrenaline on weekends.
We know you mostly as a driver, but you’re also in a funny TV ad for pet insurance…
There’s actually a cool story about that ad. I’ve always loved dogs. When I was little I had an Irish setter. I had a boxer, Killer, for about 11 years. Now I have another Irish setter, Gus, and we've got four buffalo out in the pasture. I’ve been with Nationwide Insurance ever since I got my driver’s license. And pet insurance is a no-brainer. In the commercial script, I was supposed to get my dogs to speak on cue—but they’re not trained, so it wouldn’t work. We rewrote it on the spot so they could do whatever they wanted—which is what they always do! Our fans love seeing the dogs and the buffalo, especially when they take tours around the shop. I think at one point, Killer was selling more T-shirts than I was.
What’s been the best day of your career?
Winning the Daytona 500 in ’04 and ’14. That was just a crazy, crazy feeling. When you win that race and you go to Victory Lane and everybody's there. Your team, your family, everybody's calling on the phone. The whole world is watching. Winning the All-Star race as a rookie was incredible. We were rookie team in this All-Star race. I don't think we, even in our wildest dreams, imagined that we were going to win the event. And the Xfinity Series in ’98 and ’99. That was an incredible feeling of accomplishment for me. I was just starting out as a racer. The sky was the limit for me at that moment. My father [who died at Daytona in ’01] was still alive, so enjoying that with him was amazing.
What is one of the most valuable things that you learned from your father about driving, or even life in general?
He didn't really give you a lot of time and didn't sit down with you all that much. There were nights when we would sit in the living room and he would be in the La-Z-Boy watching TV, and you couldn't get him to answer a question. He wasn't a talker. When he did talk to you, you listened.
But once, he sat me down and talked to me about drugs and school. I guess all fathers probably have this conversation. Maybe mothers, too. He quit school in eighth grade. He had already failed a couple of grades. He was 16 years old and quit to race cars or to work on cars, and his father was so disappointed. That’s why my father would always remind us of how important it was for us—and him—that we finish school. And I’m so grateful now for that. He was always really concerned that we might fall into the wrong crowd and get mixed up in drugs and things like that. We had short conversations, but they were weighted. I could tell it was really important to him.
But he didn’t talk racing much, honestly. He’d shake a fist at me if I didn’t do something exactly right, but he wasn’t really a teacher. He felt people needed to learn shit on their own. I only got to race with him for about a year. I wish I got to race with him a lot more than that. It was great when I was driving and I could physically see his car. I was sharing the track with him.
If I’d known the opportunity to be around him would be so short, I’d have done things differently, asked more questions. But, living in the moment, you just do everything you can to make him proud.