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Dale Earnhardt Jr. shifts gears as NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. shifts gears as NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates winning the 2014 Daytona 500. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew only one speed at the Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt now finds himself shifting gears, taking his foot off the gas and looking at car racing from a different vantage point.

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Following a decorated career that included four wins on this storied superspeedway, the sport’s most popular driver traded a steering wheel for a microphone at the end of the 2017 season and now serves as a color analyst for NBC Sports.

Earnhardt’s debut last Sunday in Chicago was a win by any measure.

Lagging TV ratings were up and Earnhardt nearly broke the Internet when he twice exclaimed, “Slide job!” as Kyle Larson attempted to pass eventual winner Kyle Busch on the final lap but made contact and ended up hitting the wall.

“That was just a natural reaction to what I was seeing. That’s what my bosses asked me to do — to say what I was thinking,” Earnhardt told reporters Friday. “In a moment like that, you’re excited and I’m enjoying it and I’m reacting like a fan … I was really surprised that took off like it did. By the time I got to the airport, everybody was texting me and saying it over and over.

“That’s cool. I’m glad the broadcast was a success.”

Earnhardt’s authentic, unfiltered personality, quick wit and approachability helped him carry the torch of his late father, made him popular in media rooms and seem perfectly suited to television.

Operating in NBC’s four-man TV booth, though, has proven as challenging as navigating a 40-car NASCAR field.

Junior is joined by play-by-play man Rick Allen and the color-commentary duo of Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s former crew chief. Each will look to offer insight and infuse enthusiasm into the race without drawing a yellow flag.

“Everybody has a role to play, so I’m trying to find out where my lane is and stay in it,” Earnhardt said.

Few expect Earnhardt to struggle to find his way. NBC is banking on him to be a smashing success.

A promotion on the side of the media center at Daytona International Speedway has a giant photo of Earnhardt and the words, “Same Dale. New View.”

“He’s a guy that not only was the most popular driver, not only was a very successful race car driver, but is also a huge historian of the sport,” Letarte said. “He understands every decade — ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s — which I think helps him. He can relate to all the fans from the 14-year-old to the grandfather, and I think that makes him unique.”

To Letarte’s point, Earnhardt wore a t-shirt of Hall-of-Famer Bobby Allison’s No. 15 car. Earnhardt noted Allison drove it during the 1979 Daytona 500 that famously ended with Allison and brother Donnie in a fistfight with Cale Yarborough on the back stretch following a wreck during the final lap.

Earnhardt estimates he owns 150 vintage T’s, but he always has seemed most comfortable in his own skin. The laid-back 43-year-old expects it might take a little time for his true self to come across fully on television.

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A 26-time winner in the Cup Series, Earnhardt likely will be at his best when he simply reacts like he is behind the wheel.

He said the staged 10-minute introduction prior to the race is “the most nerve-wracking part” of a telecast. Even though he spent more than 20 years driving while listening to a crew chief, Earnhardt finds it challenging to maintain his stream of thought while listening through an earpiece to a producer.

“It’s hard. You’re talking your thought; the producer comes in while you’re talking. Your reaction’s to stop and listen,” Earnhardt explained. “Trying to get used to that and continue your thought and listen to him because he’s saying something about the direction of the show ... whatever he’s saying you’re trying to process that information and process what your thought is.

“That’s so challenging, to be honest with you. That’s going to take me awhile but it’s getting easier.”

Earnhardt realizes the audience will determine his long-term future in this new endeavor.

“It comes down to the opinion of how we do and I do whether I can stick around,” he said.

Earnhardt surely will be given ample time to learn the ropes and find his role. Few drivers have engendered more goodwill with fans, who voted Junior the sport’s Most Popular Driver for 15 straight years (2003-2017),

Earnhardt, who’s worth an estimated $400 million, decided to retire following last season due to issues with concussions and a desire to start a family, which accompanied him this week.

He never planned to entirely leave racing behind. Earnhardt’s new gig allows him to be around the track and his friends while staying connected to his legion of fans.

“I get to work with my friends and have fun; we get to talk about racing,” he said. “I’m watching the races anyway, right? I want to be at the track. I miss coming to the track. If I could go to every race and watch them, I would. NBC is going to do that and send me to all the tracks, and then they’re going to pay me to talk about it.

“It’s a dream come true, to be honest of you.”

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. began his new role as analyst for NBC Sports last week. He discussed his new gig prior to this week's Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
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