The skies opened up, and the cars shut off. Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and ascended the stairs to the top of his pit box, where the roof protected him from the rain.
His car in the 2014 Daytona 500 was not great to that point; it certainly wasn‘t a race-winning car. As the rain continued, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte discussed the race, the car and what they thought they needed to do to win.
The rain let up briefly enough for them to scatter and wait out what became a 6-hour, 22-minute delay. Letarte retreated to his motorhome, where he tried to keep his mind sharp by playing Scrabble with his wife. Earnhardt hustled to his own motorhome, where he behaved like it was a normal Sunday and not one in which he might win the biggest race in the country for the second time. He put on sweatpants, ate junk food, played Crazy 8s and talked to his girlfriend (now wife), Amy.
He had long loved staying up until all hours of the night, so it didn‘t bother him to wait. In that downtime, he decided that when the race restarted — late that night, early the next morning, whenever — he was “going to race as hard as I can — be a jerk.”
It was rare for him to race that way, especially with so much of the race left. “For whatever reason,” he says, “I was like, ‘Nope, I‘m leading every (expletive) lap. If I can lead it, I‘m going to lead it. I‘m going to fight for every single inch.‘ ”
When the race restarted, he sliced from the top of the track to the bottom and back again, pinched drivers into the wall, blocked passes before they happened and squeezed his car into holes he never otherwise would have tried to.
When he roared under the checkered flag at 11:18 p.m. ET, 10 years ago, it was more than just NASCAR‘s favorite son triumphing on the sport‘s most hallowed ground. It was Earnhardt‘s moment of long-sought redemption, his emergence from the wilderness, his reclamation of lost years in which he wondered if he‘d ever win again.
He keyed his microphone and yelled, “We‘re going to burn this (expletive) down!” And NASCAR Nation warmed itself by that fire.
It‘s a cliché that happens to be true that winning the Daytona 500 changes your life, and so it was for Earnhardt in 2014. Amid the unbridled joy as Sunday night became Monday morning, Earnhardt used his phone to take a selfie with the Harley J. Earl Trophy, signed into his dormant and unused Twitter account, keyed in a message and hit send at 2:32 a.m. ET: Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to join Twitter. How is everyone doin? #2XDaytona500Champ
That simple message set his life on a course nobody saw coming, Earnhardt included. But it has turned out to be a crucial step in his journey from a shy, introverted driver who hid in his motorhome most weekends into an outspoken media personality whose podcast, social media presence and race commentary dominate the NASCAR media world.
To understand how profound of a change it was, you have to go back to his first Daytona 500 win, 20 years ago.
In 2004, Earnhardt entered the Daytona 500 as NASCAR‘s unrivaled superstar. He was amid 15 straight seasons of being named the sport‘s most popular driver. Racing the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy for the team that bore his late father‘s name, he had won at least two races each of the previous four years and finished third in the points the previous season, a career high. He opened 2004 on the short list of championship contenders.
The Daytona 500 is always the biggest race of the year. In 2004, with a new title sponsor at the Cup level in Nextel and a new points format in The Chase, the attention was as high as it had ever been.
Like his father before him, he was always the driver to watch at the high-banked, 2.5-mile, restrictor-plate track. To that point in his career, he had won two qualifying races, the 2003 Bud Shootout and the 2001 Pepsi 400 but never the Daytona 500.
The 2004 Daytona 500 was something short of spectacular. After a 12-car wreck on Lap 71, the race ran green for the final 120 laps. Earnhardt and Tony Stewart were the class of the field, leading a combined 156 of 200 laps. They agreed early in the race to work like teammates — draft together, pit together, stay on the same sequence, and when it came to the end, they would battle for the win.
As the race wound down, Stewart held the lead as Earnhardt chased him. Earnhardt played with the throttle, letting way out of the gas and then hammering down to try to catch Stewart at the exit of the corner, practicing for what he hoped would be the race-winning move.
On Lap 181, he pulled side by side with Stewart — a more aggressive position than he had envisioned, essentially engaging the pass without having intended to. To complete the pass, he needed to side-draft Stewart. He had a five-inch window to make that move happen, otherwise Stewart would maintain his position as the leader. As Earnhardt inched into position, the two touched, and that contact created a perfect slingshot to catapult Earnhardt to the lead.
Earnhardt waited and waited for Stewart to attempt a similar move to pass him back, but he never did. With about five laps left, Earnhardt realized Stewart didn‘t have the car to pass him. The race was his … as long as nothing broke, as long as there was no caution. Every engine noise sounded like a gremlin chewing on wires, every tire felt like it was going down, every roar seemed to be the last gasp of an engine blowing up, but that was all in his head.
The end came uneventfully except for the screaming — in his ears, out of his mouth, from the crowd, across living rooms throughout the country.
“It‘s a great, great feeling that you can‘t replicate anywhere else in the rest of your existence,” he says. “Getting married and having kids are first and second to everything else that I‘ve ever done, sure. But I didn‘t come running out of the room at the hospital screaming in the hallways and into the arms of people.”
That high gives context to the lows that followed — and makes his return to that mountaintop 10 years later even more remarkable.
Earnhardt won five more times in 2004, and he had a shot at the championship before he was docked points for swearing in a live TV interview after a win at Talladega and wrecked a few races later. He entered the final race of the season mathematically in the hunt for the championship. He ultimately finished fifth in the standings.
Though 2004 had a disappointing ending, Earnhardt appeared poised to be a yearly contender for championships.
That never happened.
He won only four more times in the next nine seasons. His life turned into a Jerry Springer episode, as one person close to him put it. He escaped a fire in a sports car crash, feuded with his stepmother and had a falling out with Uncle Tony Eury Sr., who had been his crew chief.
His confidence — always a crucial barometer for Earnhardt, in the car and out — cratered, and so did his performance. He stopped saying he was the best driver in the sport because he stopped believing he was the best driver in the sport.
Even a switch to the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season failed for years to produce results expected of the sport‘s favorite son. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 combined, he managed just nine top fives and 25 top 10s with an average finish of 18.8.
“You just can‘t get out of your own way. It affected his confidence,” says Mike Davis, who has worked with Earnhardt since 2004 and is now president and executive producer of Earnhardt‘s Dirty Mo Media. “Those years were no small thing. A lot of people don‘t come back from that.”
But Junior did. He had solid seasons in 2012 and 2013, with one win, 20 top fives and 42 top 10s, and he entered the 2014 Daytona 500 with expectations higher than any year since 2005. Would this be the year he finally emerged as a star again?
In the first race, he answered with a resounding yes.
Brad Keselowski said it was the hardest-raced Daytona 500 in history. Apparently, everyone else decided to “be a jerk,” just like Earnhardt had. Earnhardt’s battle with Greg Biffle illustrates that point. They traded the lead 34 times on Laps 153 through 159 and eight times on Lap 169 alone.
Earnhardt describes restrictor-plate racing as like using a set of tools that aren’t always the same. Sometimes the tools work slightly differently, or you get a new tool entirely. You don‘t know how the tools will work, or even that some of them exist, until the race starts, and you only discover them at 200 miles per hour with cars in front, behind and beside you.
“Dale Jr. did better than everyone in my opinion — he used every single moment every lap to continue to fill his toolbox with what he needed to win the race,” Letarte says.
That‘s what happened as he raced against Biffle. As they fought for the lead, Biffle had more cars behind him, which should have given him the advantage. But Earnhardt discovered if he squeezed Biffle very close to the wall, Biffle‘s car would slow ever so slightly. That tool had never worked exactly that way before, but it did that night.
He used it to win the race.
The words in that fateful tweet — “Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to join Twitter” — make it seem like a spur-of-the-moment decision. It wasn‘t. For years, Earnhardt‘s marketing people, friends, even Twitter (now rebranded as “X”) officials pushed him to join the platform. But he resisted. He doubted anyone cared what he had to say, and he had misgivings about the nature of conversations on social media.
He wanted to join; he didn‘t want to join. He thought he would; he thought he wouldn‘t. Some friends told him he should do so; other friends told him hell no don‘t do that. He visited the White House with fellow drivers, and they talked about Twitter there. Like an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, Kevin Harvick told him he should join, and Denny Hamlin advised him not to.
In late 2013 or early 2014, in something between a bet and a promise, Earnhardt told Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (by that point already a Twitter ace) that if he (Earnhardt) won the Daytona 500, he would join Twitter.
The tweet exploded in the NASCAR and broader sports social media world. By that morning, he already had more than 300,000 followers, and he soon became an avid user of the app. He delighted in learning the lingo, the do‘s and don‘ts, and he spent countless hours experimenting.
Joining the platform was like restrictor-plate racing in that the tools he used were largely the same as he used in his personal life but a little different. He didn‘t become opinionated and witty when he joined Twitter. He was already those things. He didn‘t learn to tell stories there; he already knew how. The tools he lacked were the confidence to share his opinions, wit and stories outside of a small circle of friends, and the belief that anybody cared what he had to say.
Twitter gave him both of those tools, and the more he played with the app, the more he liked it, not least because it got him out of his own head. After a bad race, he felt “ashamed to show my face anywhere.” Twitter showed him the rest of the world had moved on, so should he.
Some Sunday nights after races he would arrive home in North Carolina unable to sleep because he was still caked with adrenaline. He‘d grab a beer, go downstairs to his computer and jump on Twitter. Soon he‘d be answering questions of whoever asked them, an unannounced AMA session that ran deep into the night.
Occasionally, he woke up the next day and wondered what dumpster fire he might have started. But it was always innocuous. He enjoyed wishing strangers happy birthday, reminiscing about old photos and connecting with musicians whose work he loves. It was like sitting on his couch talking to his buddies about any and all topics, up to and including banana-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.
Looking back, he calls that time “practice” for his roles hosting the Dale Jr. Download podcast and analyzing races on NBC. As he got more comfortable on Twitter, that led to him being more comfortable on the podcast. He‘s a ubiquitous presence now, but when it launched, he wasn‘t. He wasn‘t even a regular in-studio guest, never mind the host and star as he is today.
He would instead record audio clips and send them to Davis. As with everything in his life, confidence bred confidence. “I just kept dipping my toe deeper and deeper into the water,” Earnhardt says. “And so then I walked into Mike‘s office and said, ‘Hey, I‘m ready to host.‘ He‘s like, ‘Really?‘ He never thought I was ever going to do that.”
“Twitter changed Dale Jr.‘s life,” is true, but it‘s also too reductive. None of this happened in a vacuum, rather it was part of a transformation of Earnhardt from a shy introvert into a still shy but less so, still introverted but less so and now confident and vibrant media personality.
Earnhardt met his wife, Amy, in 2008. They married in 2016 and now have two children. She coaxed him out of his self-created shell. She taught him about sacrifice and commitment and how to be unselfish, inside the car and out.
In 2011, he started working with crew chief Letarte, who, by refusing to let Earnhardt spend all race weekend locked in his motorhome playing video games, demanded accountability from him in a way nobody else had. Letarte insisted Earnhardt show up at the hauler an hour before practice and stay after practice until he didn‘t need Earnhardt anymore. The conversations those meetings generated led to a deep friendship and fast cars.
“The more he was out and about the more comfortable he became with it, but it was still in an environment you can control,” Letarte says. “And I look at Twitter as the next step.”
All of that together made Earnhardt more comfortable with the idea of becoming a media personality, even if it wasn‘t intentional and is obvious only with hindsight. From Twitter to the podcast to broadcasting was a natural progression, albeit an astonishing one to those who know him: Earnhardt, who spent many years uncomfortable even going out to eat in public, is now willing to put himself out there in front of the world all the time.
Said Davis: “I would have bet every dollar I had that he wasn‘t going to go into broadcasting. I would have lost everything. The fact that he‘s not only doing it but is extremely good at it is mind-blowing.”
Earnhardt‘s first taste of broadcasting came when he missed races in 2016 due to a concussion and NBC invited him to the broadcast booth at Talladega. Wearing dark-framed glasses, sneakers, jeans and a blue and gray plaid shirt — Amy stopped him from wearing his preferred hoodie — he sat on a stool between NBC analysts Letarte and Jeff Burton, against whom he raced hundreds of times.
They lapsed into a conversation like old friends. His eyes darted from the track to the TV screen in front of him. He smiled often and at one point raised his hand when he wanted to interject a point.
While Earnhardt was still in the booth, NBC announced he would return there for the following week‘s race at Martinsville. Producer Matt Marvin told him what a great job he had done. Marvin paused for just a second and said, “Next time, if you‘re not as good, we‘ll kick you out early.”
When Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season, his arrival in NBC‘s booth full-time for the 2018 season seemed like a foregone conclusion, even if four short years before, the idea would have been laughable.
For his first few years as a broadcaster, anxiety followed him to every race, sat with him and whispered critiques. He felt like he was taking a test he wasn‘t prepared for, and that the racing community would give him a failing grade. He obsessively read reviews of his performance on social media. He eventually realized that was doing more harm than good and stopped.
“Learning the art of being a sports broadcaster involves talking, but it also involves listening,” says Jeff Behnke, NBC‘s vice president of NASCAR production. “It takes years to refine not only your ability to speak on air but also to listen to what others are saying. Dale works to improve both of those aspects of broadcasting, along with his storytelling, every time he puts the headset on.”
Perhaps his best work of storytelling was just two words long.
At Earnhardt‘s first Cup race as a full-time broadcaster, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch engaged in one of NASCAR‘s all-time great finishes at Chicagoland Speedway. As Larson attempted a “slide job” in front of Busch on the last lap, Earnhardt yelled that expression — twice.
He said he felt like he was sitting on his couch talking to his buddies — a “tool” he has used countless times — only this time, he was being watched by millions — the same tool, only much, much louder.
“Slide job!” immediately entered the NASCAR lexicon. By the time Earnhardt got to the airport after the race, his phone was full of texts parroting that phrase back to him. At Daytona the following weekend, fans shouted it to him everywhere.
And, of course, Earnhardt‘s call blew up on Twitter.