When it comes to pressure, few are better acquainted than NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. The 11-time Most Popular Driver award winner claimed the Daytona 500 for the second time in February and currently sits fourth in the Sprint Cup Series. That’s a sharp turn from a few years ago, when many questioned whether the driver of the No. 88 Chevy really had what it takes to buckle in with the best.
So when we joined Dale Jr. last month at Las Vegas’ Kobalt 400 for the debut of his new Mountain Dew Kickstart paint scheme, we skipped the typical racing questions. Instead, we focused on lessons learned behind the wheel that can help those of us who will never zip around a track at 200 miles an hour…
How do you cope with the pressure that comes from needing to perform at your peak week in and week out?
I put a lot of pressure on myself, and there are a lot of expectations from the fans. The fans want you to win, but you’ve got to use it as motivation. It feels good to know that somebody wants me to succeed. So I try to turn the pressure into something positive and if I can’t do that, I just ignore it, I just block it out.
Does the pressure to win ever become too much to bear?
I’ve got to show up because I’m supposed to do this job. I don’t have a choice but to go ahead and race, and race hard. So when the pressure gets built up you’ve just got to push through it… and get it to motivate you to work harder.
“One trick I do is think about things that have happened in my past that are far more severe, far bigger mountains that I’ve climbed. That gives me confidence in that moment to say, ‘This ain’t nothing. I can do this today.’ ”
Is there something that comes with competing in NASCAR that you find yourself using in your life on a personal level?
Relationships with my crew chief and with my engineers and mechanics. That’s your co-worker who wants to help you and you want to help him. Everybody has to carry their load and everybody has to do their job. I try to apply that to everyday life especially in relationships with family.
How specifically does that apply to family?
Sometimes you can get lazy with your relationships at home and with your family. In any kind of relationship, you have to work to make them work. There might be people at your workplace that you don’t like, and you have to work with them and be professional. That helps me at home deal with my relationship with my girlfriend and my work relationship with my mother and my sister. That helps us to remain professional but at the same time care for each other, love each other and treat each other with respect.
How has winning the Daytona 500 this year changed things?
It gave me the confidence that I’ve still got it. I can still do it and I need to stick with it for a little while longer and things can get better. I’m starting to realize what I felt like my potential was all along. I had some good years in ’04, ’02, ’03. But ’09, ’10 and ’11 were bad, and it’s come back around, so I’m glad I stuck with it.
As a competitor, which position do you prefer—the challenge to get to the top, or the challenge of trying to stay on top?
I like to be on top. It’s easier to be in first place on the last lap than it is trying to take it away from somebody.
With the new Kickstart paint scheme, Dale Jr. coasted (literally) to a second-place finish in Vegas.
What advice would you give someone on coping with the stresses of everyday life?
You’ve just got to take a deep breath and relax and minimize the situation in your head. A lot of times you can double, triple and quadruple the pressure and blow it up beyond reality. If you just sit down and chill and relax and realize the weight of the situation, you can get control of it.
Do you have a certain coping mechanism for dealing with stressful situations?
One trick I do is think about things that have happened in my past that are far more severe, far bigger mountains that I’ve climbed. That gives me confidence in that moment to say, ‘This ain’t nothing. I can do this today.’
One of the biggest challenges for any athlete is knowing when to hang it up. How will you know when it’s time to hand over the wheel?
I’d have to ask myself… am I having fun? Am I enjoying what I do? Am I doing it for money? Am I doing it because I love it? I’ve got to realize when I’m no longer competitive mentally and physically. You can stick around on your history and your past and your last name as long as you want, but do you want to do that? And do you realize you’re doing it? I’ve seen drivers stay in there too long. They make a little extra cash, a little bit more money for their retirement, but it’s not a good look when you’re not competitive and everyone knows it.
What will you do when that time to retire comes?
I have a couple of dealerships in Tallahassee, Florida. I’ve got a nightclub in Charlotte. I’ve got a production company that I started that I do a lot of commercials with in the industry. I have enough things going on that I think can carry me for a while…