For nearly two decades Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the most popular driver in NASCAR, as the son of The Intimidator grew into the face of the sport. Now 43 years old, the living legend is entering the final races of his career as he will hang it up after this season.
Earnhardt Jr. won’t be going far, though, as he’s joining the NASCAR on NBC broadcast team for their portion of the season in 2018. Ahead of those final races, Dale and sponsor Mountain Dew worked together on a special new spot to celebrate the end of his career and, well, pass the torch in a way to his replacement, Dewey Rider (played by Danny McBride).
The spot will debut on Sunday at the Martinsville race, which will be the first of the final four races of Earnhardt Jr.’s career, ending in Miami at Homestead Motor Speedway. Dale Jr. spoke with UPROXX Sports this week about what the final season has been like, why he’s most nervous about not soaking in the moment in his final race, his newest spot, and getting to work with Danny McBride, some of his favorite commercials he’s gotten to do over the years, and how he’s already annoying his wife with how excited he is to become a dad for the first time next May.
Now that you’re coming to the end of your final NASCAR season and with this having been your life for so long, what’s the strangest part of this final season been for you?
I don’t know that anything’s been real strange. It’s starting to get a little more emotional I think over these last couple of races. It didn’t feel any different than any other season up until Talladega. You get into the racetrack and in the middle of practice and the competitive thoughts start going through your mind and you get consumed with working on the car and working with your team. That would keep you really from thinking too much. But over the last couple weeks, starting with Talladega, it’s starting to really sink in that this is going to be over very soon. I don’t know if that’s a strange feeling, but it’s different for sure.
I’m getting a little more and more nervous about Homestead and being able to process it as it’s happening. Sometimes, like when you win your first race — or any race really — you a lot of times don’t kinda soak in the moment and then it’s past and you look back on it and go, ‘man, I didn’t realize what we’d accomplished at the time.’ I’m afraid that Homestead’s going to fly by and I feel like I’m really wanting to make sure that I open up myself and take it in. Soak it up and, whatever. I want to be in the moment and experience it and have fun with it. Then it’s going to be gone. Ain’t no reliving it. Ain’t no going back.
Is that a tricky spot? Wanting to make sure you take it in and all, but also wanting to make sure you’re doing all things that made you so good as a driver for 20 years and doing all those things you mentioned?
Yeah, that’s been pretty easy actually up to this point at least. I don’t know if it’ll be as easy at Homestead. I just feel like Homestead’s such an unknown as far as how I’ll feel, personally, and I think it will be a real challenge trying to balance wanting to be competitive and also understanding that every moment it’s getting closer to the finish. And not being able to soak it up and soak it in and understand it, and trying to be competitive at the same time will be a challenge I’m sure.
Let’s talk about this new Dewey Rider spot with Mountain Dew where you got to work with Danny McBride. What were your thoughts when they came to you about the idea?
I couldn’t believe it to be honest with you. I’m a really, really big fan of Danny’s, whether it was Eastbound and Down or Vice Principals. He’s just a really funny character. I had the opportunity to meet him in Charleston earlier this year. Had dinner with him. This was sort of right around the time there was some whispers about us doing a spot together, and it was just really exciting. I know the fans, I don’t know if I’m biased because I’m such a big fan of his shows, but I think this spot’s really going to get a lot of attention.
I think it’s going to be a big, popular spot with our fans, so there’s a little bit of me that there maybe a spinoff for Dewey into a real show. That’d be really epic and a watchable series if he were to put together a season for that. I was really just surprised because I think it’s a huge huge get for us, for our relationship with Mountain Dew, and it’s going to do big things for NASCAR in general. I’m excited for what people think and I think people are gonna have fun with it.
You mentioned that you got to meet him and you had a tweet that said it was a rare moment where you were starstruck with him. How much fun was it working with him on set for this shoot?
It was incredibly entertaining and it’s rare — I’ve only had the opportunity to be around a professional on a couple of occasions. It’s great to be able to see those people work. He takes it very seriously, but he made me feel very comfortable so that I felt like I was doing what I needed to be doing to help make it a good spot. We do so many commercials and I’ve done so many commercials over my career that a lot of times it’s fun to see a professional come in there and do it and you compare yourself to them and their work ethic and their approach.
I’m never going to be a star actor, but I’ve been in positions they’ve been in with doing these commercials and it’s fun to see how he comes in and does it and what his approach is. So, it’s very helpful going forward from that standpoint, but yeah I had to get over the fact that I was this big fan of his and remind myself that I belonged there and that I needed to, I don’t know if step up is the right way to describe it, but I had to remind myself that I need to do my job here and make this really good and he’ll do the rest. He came in there and just nailed it.
It was so funny. The hardest thing about working with Danny is trying not to laugh. Everybody on set, all the grips and all the people there had to continuously remind themselves not to laugh at everything he does and says. He does a lot of stuff right off the top of his head so you never know what’s going to come out as he does take after take after take and he just keeps coming up with stuff and mixing it up and adjusting. Saying something different, and anytime something new came out people would snicker and you have that in the audio and that’s the hardest part of working with Danny is trying not to laugh and screwing up takes.
You mention you’ve been doing commercials for a long time. Have you gone back and watched any of your old stuff and compared it and looked at how far you’ve come as an actor in doing commercials? And what are things you think you’ve taken big strides in over your career in that area?
The one thing that I realized over time was that when you’re doing something on camera, you have to exaggerate a lot. Cause for whatever reason, when it’s edited down and the final product comes across for the viewer, you lose some of that. I don’t know, you can’t never really over do it when it comes to reactions and mannerisms and those things. The bigger the better, you know. And it took me awhile to get comfortable doing that. I was always really shy and nervous about looking stupid or foolish. So for the longest time I think I was really one-dimensional, and I wasn’t really risky either. I would always turn down a script or a spot that I wasn’t sure or comfortable about. I wouldn’t never really put myself out there.
Eventually, I don’t know what happened, but I got to where I was more open to being silly, being goofy, trying to be a different version of myself. Like, we do Water Cooler Dale with Nationwide and a lot of really great stuff with AMP Energy like the gorilla spot, the Dale Call and all of those things I would’ve been nervous to do early in my career. But I got to the point where I was like, these are big productions, they’re very very expensive to make, and I gotta step up here. I’ve gotta put myself out there and I’ve got to take the risk of putting my reputation or what I’m going to look like in the hands of this director or in the hands of the sponsor, and it really worked.
I was more exaggerated and robust in all the commercials we’ve done lately. A lot more animated and they edit it down and clean it up, and they get what they need instead of me sorta underdelivering my lines and so forth as I did earlier in my career. I just got to a point where I was like, you know what, I’m just going to put myself out there and see what happens and do whatever they want me to do and take ownership of it. And it’s really, I think, improved the way the spots look and fans really pick up on it and see you’re having fun and makes the spots look better.
Where’s this one, I know it hasn’t run yet, but where’s it rank for you on spots you’ve done and what are some of your all-time favorites?
There’s so many fun ones that we’ve done. We did a lot of fun ones with Budweiser. The first batch we did with AMP, I loved that. We went out to L.A. That felt like such a big time production. That brought a lot of confidence for me. Carrying the camel through the desert, the gorilla spot. Those were really fun to do and I thought they looked great.
All the stuff we’ve done with Nationwide has been awesome. They always put a lot of money into the productions as well and they always come across nice and clean and genuine. This one, though, this one ranks if not first a very close second, because of Danny. Just being able to work with him, I’ll never forget that. That’s just something that’s hard to compare anything else to. It’s always fun to do creative spots by yourself, but it’s so rare that you get to work with someone that’s a star like him.
A lot of times you get nervous to meet your heroes or idols or whatever you wanna call it because you don’t really know if you want to know who they really are. But Danny’s super down to earth and super cool. We had some opportunity to spend some time together before we do the shoot and that made it easier because I wasn’t starstruck or anything cause we’d been around each other. Had some beers and drank some tequila and what have you. It was cool. I would put it, if not first, then right there at the top.
I know you’re headed to the TV booth next year, but do you have any things you’re looking forward to being able to do next year when you have extra time not having to deal with a full race schedule?
Well, we’re gonna have a little girl in May, so I can’t stop thinking about that every minute of the day. Yeah, I mean I’m so consumed in the pregnancy and we go to the doctor tomorrow for another ultrasound, and I cannot freakin’ wait. But I’m already like giving Amy a ton of anxiety because I’m wanting to get the nursery done and she’s like, ‘We’ve got plenty of time, chill out.’ And I’m thinking every minute of the day, ‘What can we do?! Let’s do this! What about this?!’ And I’m just so excited about that, that’s going to obviously take a lot of my mind and that’s where I’m going to be focused on over the next several months and beyond before I climb in the booth.
I think, really, this first year I’m going to play it safe. Stay close to home. Get ready and be prepared and do my preparation all the way up until we get in the booth. Maybe after I get this first year under my belt I’ll be a little bit more comfortable with cutting up and taking off to do more things and having a little fun and a little more free time. This year I’m going to make sure I’m present, accountable, and I want to do a really good job in the booth.
So, I need to make sure I’m really prepared so my confidence is there. All those things, and with the baby and all that I need to be there with Amy and making sure she’s comfortable and doing all the things that she don’t need to be doing.