E.A. Sports Today

From wheel to mic

Junior’s biggest activity in ‘retirement’ will be in broadcast booth; runs Talladega for final time this weekend

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is greeted by Talladega chairman Grant Lynch after the driver finished a lap in the car his father drove during his first two seasons as a Cup driver. Track officials gave Junior the car as a retirement momento.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is headed to the broadcast booth in his retirement and it’s a world that demands as much nerve as any racing scenario at Talladega Superspeedway.

The most popular driver in NASCAR could become the most popular broadcaster in NASCAR with the candor that has made him popular with those on the media side of the track, but he knows as a former competitor he’ll be driving a tight line between criticism and insight.

The fans would love that candor, providing them the sense of being a fly on the wall from the most inside of NASCAR insiders; the drivers perhaps not so much.

When it’s all said and done, Earnhardt would probably prefer to be in the vane of Tony Romo rather than Johnny Miller.

Romo is the former NFL quarterback turned broadcast analyst with a knack for predicting the plays in the game he’s calling, a talent that has become more uncanny than unnerving. Miller is the former U.S. Open champion golfer who has been both derided and praised for his candid assessments of current players’ shot-making abilities and on-course decisions.

Earnhardt said he has spoken to several broadcasters about the subject. Several former drivers have made the transition to the booth, most notably Darrell Waltrip and most recently Jeff Gordon, with whom Junior is tied for second in Cup wins at Talladega.

“There’s a fine line,” he said. “To be able to understand what is going on in the sport to know what you need to know and have as much information and knowledge about what’s happening down in the garage you have to have great connections with all those drivers, crew chiefs and so forth. You have to be careful about how you speak about individuals because they take that stuff personal. Me being a driver, I’m the same way. And you need that connection to be able to have that instant communication, and they can shut that off if they don’t want to deal with you.

“I think being honest is great but there is such a thing as being too critical and I think I’ll have to learn what that is. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Earnhardt confesses he won’t be perfect right out of the gate, but he promises to be as prepared as possible when he does get behind the mic in July; that’s what the first six months of the next season is going to be all about. He’s already embraced the experience of wearing the Helmetcam, just so he can speak about it with authority in case it comes up on one of the telecasts next year.

Earnhardt might not have an insight on how Miller handles the call, but he likes what he’s seen from Romo on the NFL broadcasts he’s seen and says if he’s “half as good” as the former Cowboys quarterback in his job as insider/analyst “I’ll be happy.”

“That guy’s just awesome,” Junior said. “He’s doing such a great job and he sounds like he’s sitting right there next to you on the couch talking to you about the game like a best friend. It’s easy to listen to and does such a good job with it; he doesn’t try to be anything he’s not. Certainly I’ll get better with more reps, just like anything else. I think the main thing for me is just build confidence and that’s going to start with being prepared and working the initial six months to be as prepared as I can.

“I think they hired me to be myself and I’ll try to get in there and keep that going, but I know just knowing what Jeff went through with a few guys, you just don’t jump in there and get all critical on the drivers and such because that will make you a lot of enemies in the garage and you need those relationships to have that ability to communicate and stay up to date with what’s happening in the sport. If you’re hacking on the drivers they’re going to stop dealing with you and not want to talk to you.”

Of course, he has plenty of time to prepare for the booth. The only thing he’s concerned about this weekend is finding a way to get to the front and finishing there in his final start at Talladega before retirement kicks in.

The room Friday started filling up about a half-hour before he was scheduled to meet with the media he’ll be a part of next season. It wasn’t quite as packed as the driver’s meeting, but space was quickly becoming a premium as the television cameras and still photographers were jockeying for a prime position in the front of the room poised to capture every word from the iconic driver.

If anyone was looking for any profound parting words, they weren’t there. It was pretty much business as usual, straight up as usual.

“It is a track we’ve had a lot of success at,” he said as he reflected on Talladega. “We’ve been looking at this race as a great opportunity for us to come in and get an awesome run or finish – maybe a win. Just been focusing on the car and trying to get it to be as good as possible … and all the usual things you think about and are concerned with on any given race weekend. I haven’t really thought beyond the usual emotions and anticipations you have every race.

“I do know this place has been great to me. We’ve got a lot of fans who come see us run here because they see it as a great opportunity to see us run well. There’s motivation to do well and run hard for all the folks who come to see it happen. I’m sure there are a few extra here this particular weekend considering it’s our last trip here, so that’s more motivation. Hoping we can get up there an give everybody who’s going to be pulling for us a reason to cheer and hope they leave the track Sunday satisfied.”

Because this is part of his retirement tour, track officials couldn’t let him get away without a few momentos of the place. Track chairman Grant Lynch presented him with the champagne bottles from his father’s and his first trips to Talladega’s Victory Lane.

Then the track get him, courtesy of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, one of the cars his famous father drove during his second Cup – and first championship – season on the circuit.

“I really enjoy racing here, I really enjoy racing at Martinsville – two completely different styles of events and disciplines,” he said. “I’ll miss a little bit of something about every place that we run at, all the tracks have character and personality … There will be a lot reasons to miss all the tracks.”

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