Earnhardt Jr. becomes a Twitter phenomenon
February 28, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembers once walking into the room where his father's fan mail was stored, and seeing it piled high with far too many missives to ever be answered. That's how the newly minted two-time Daytona 500 champion feels about his first few steps into the social media world of Twitter -- at times, a bit overwhelmed.
"How do you decipher all that? How do you get through all that?" Earnhardt asked Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway. "It's just a lot coming at you, and you want to take it all in. You don’t want to miss anything."
NASCAR's most popular driver has been smiling ear-to-ear for nearly a week now, after earning his second Daytona 500 championship this past Sunday night. The most public manifestation of that elation has been on the social media network Twitter, something Earnhardt had been hesitant to join, but he finally relented in the aftermath of his most recent victory in the Great American Race.
The result? An Internet phenomenon to rival cats playing the piano. From his first post in the wee hours of Monday morning -- a photo of him with the Harley J. Earl Trophy in Daytona's Victory Lane -- Earnhardt has proven a natural, following that up with a photo of him next to the statue of his father at Daytona, and later conducting a question-and-answer session with followers en route to an appearance in Austin, Texas. Earnhardt has had an account (@DaleJr) set up for him since 2008, but it's remained inactive -- until this week.
"I knew he’d like it once he got on there," said four-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick. "He’s kind of that techy-type of guy who likes all the cool gadgets and stuff. And for a guy who is that popular, it’s a really easy way to interact without having to create a frenzy that happens when he comes around somewhere in public. For him, it’s got to be almost a relief to be able to engage with people and do it at his own pace and not have to be in this total frenzy, because he is a rock star."
What changed? Earnhardt had been reticent to join, because he didn't want to feel obligated to keep up with it, and potentially disappoint his followers when he didn't. But six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, one of the garage leaders in social media, lobbied hard for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to join, as did other drivers active in the medium like Brad Keselowski and Michael Waltrip. Even the powers-that-be at Twitter leaned on Johnson to try and change Earnhardt's mind.
"It's just been something he wasn't interested in," Johnson said. "As sharp as he is, as much time as he spends in the digital world, I knew once he got involved, he would love it, and it would work well for him. … When you're exposed like that, when you open yourself up like that, it really lets the fans and others see the world through your eyes. And it's been a very interesting follow. Creatively, he must have been watching from afar for a little while, because he's got the lingo down …. He didn’t enter as a rookie on Twitter, in my opinion. He's off to a really strong start."
The impact has been instantaneous. Earnhardt has posted regularly in the week since his Daytona victory, and Friday included photos of his new line of caps, as well as the Bible verse Darrell Waltrip's wife Stevie gave him last weekend to keep in his car. At more than half a million followers and counting, Earnhardt is well on his way to becoming one of the most influential NASCAR drivers in social media -- and he's just getting started.
"When he gets his mind set to do something, he's pretty much all-in, and he's gong to be the best at it when he does it. It's been fun for me to watch. We've had a lot of conversations and joked about it, and he was stubborn about it for a long time," said Regan Smith, a Nationwide Series driver for the JR Motorsports team co-owned by Earnhardt, and winner of last week's opener at Daytona.
"I think probably about this time last year, he started paying more attention to it. I don’t know for sure, but it seemed like he kind of knew about it, and he's picking it up quick. I mean, his tweets are better than mine, and I've been doing it for five or six years now. Not to mention, he's got a half a million followers. Half a million in less than a week. I've been on it for five or six years, and I think I've barely got 90,000, if that. So it’s kind of embarrassing from that standpoint."
For Earnhardt, it's still a work in progress. He said he's still picking up the knack on how to use the software, and has his public relations team helping "so I don't look like an idiot," he joked. Given his popularity, he's understandably struggling to keep up with the volume of responses. His road manager Mike Hoag "will come up to me and say, 'Man, such-and-such tweeted you, and I'm like -- what? Where? How? How did I miss that? Why am I missing that?,' " he said. "So I've got a lot to learn. But it's fun. It's really, really fun."
All of which makes him wonder why it took him so long. "I don’t know what I was thinking, why I didn't want to get on there earlier," he said. "It's a great way to tell people things you appreciate, and it's instant. So I'm learning. Taking all kinds of advice, if anybody wants to give me advice."
The best part? Earnhardt said he has about 500 photos on his phone of his father, including a black-and-white shot of Big E in a No. 8 car on a short track that he posted earlier this week. "One thing I like about what Dale Jr. has is, he's got all those cool pictures of his dad," Harvick said. "I’ll look forward to Thursdays now, just for the fact that I know he's going to post some really cool pictures from back in the day."
Many Twitter users post older photos on what's become known as "Throwback Thursday" within the medium. Toward that end, Earnhardt is armed and ready. "I've got Throwback Thursday for years," he said, once again showing off the smile he's had permanently in place since last Sunday night. "I'm going to be in good shape there."