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Dale Jr.’s distinctive voice resonates, even through retirement

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s voice has long been a distinctive one. The North Carolina twang didn’t skip a generation after his famous father, who handed down his name, his affinity for fast cars and that trademark drawl.

Two decades after Earnhardt Jr. was introduced to racing on NASCAR’s national stage, that voice has become the sport’s most resonant, with unvarnished colloquialisms seamlessly blending with deeply incisive thoughts.

We’ll hear that voice one more time in Earnhardt’s final media rounds as a full-time competitor this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he’ll round out his appreciation tour as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Those farewell interviews ahead of Sunday’s championship race promise to be appointment viewing for fans and reporters alike.

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It’s why veteran ESPN reporter Marty Smith — himself the proud keeper of a vibrant Southern accent — remarked on a recent visit to Richard Deitsch’s SI Media Podcast that Earnhardt Jr. “is the best interview in sports and it is not even close,” owing to Earnhardt’s intelligence and his ability to process questions with genuine, profound answers.

It wasn’t always that way, Smith noted. In the early stages of Earnhardt’s career, drawing responses out of the young, frosted-haired kid in the red fire suit was sometimes like extracting teeth. The relatable plain-spokenness was always there, but there was often an underlying arms-length distance, almost a reluctance to fully connect.

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When he did open up early on, Earnhardt’s words sometimes had the subtlety of a flying elbow off the top rope. Provocative profiles in Rolling Stone (2001) and Playboy (2003) revealed a brash twenty-something still in the acquaintance phase with the responsibilities of his newfound stardom. And the on-air profanity he blurted out in Talladega Superspeedway’s Victory Lane in 2004 was especially ill-timed, with the FCC still on high alert in the months after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” Super Bowl performance. NASCAR fined Earnhardt $10,000 and stripped him of 25 points in the midst of a late-season championship pursuit.

Earnhardt’s interviews have remained must-see TV as his career has progressed. But the tenor of those media sessions has turned, transforming into opportunities to spend time with a mature, self-assured man whose soul-baring opinions — both about the sport and life outside it — carry real weight. He shared his decision to donate his brain to concussion research with us in spring 2016 at Martinsville with unflinching openness. And when he decided one year later that this season would be his last, he answered every question in an hour-long news conference — down to the wildest hypothetical — with patience and grace.

Earnhardt has often been at his best when asked to draw from his appreciation of stock-car racing history. I attempted to tap into those memory banks two years ago, enlisting Earnhardt as a participant in our oral history of his father’s breathtaking final win at Talladega in 2000, an undertaking we had internally dubbed “The Earnhardt Project.”

Earnhardt had been briefed about the subject matter when we connected on a sweltering Labor Day Saturday in the drivers’ motorcoach lot at Darlington Raceway. I offered a general first question about that season’s rules package as a table-setter.

“Man, that was 15 years ago,” Earnhardt said, inspiring faint initial confidence in his recall ability with several questions still in the queue. What happened instead was 15 minutes of brilliance as he fondly recounted the specifics of a race almost a decade and a half old.

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Vivid details about his father’s determination to win that day sprang to life. Earnhardt Jr.’s description about his own efforts spilled out, as if we were watching a replay and he was doing play-by-play commentary. I wanted to use every word; the final product came close to hitting that mark.

As reflective as Earnhardt’s sense of history has been, his perspective on current matters has been just as illuminating. His weekly media availabilities this season have unfolded in 30-minute blocks, expanded from the usual 15 to allow for farewell gifts from each track but also to satisfy media demand and provide Earnhardt time for his typically thorough answers. It’s also why Team Chevy public relations has often split up transcription duties for Earnhardt’s wide-ranging interviews among two or three staffers each week in his final season.

After this weekend, Earnhardt’s competitive career on the track will end, but his voice will still be a familiar sound on race weekends next season. He’ll offer his views, likely with the same characteristic depth and charm but on the opposite side of the media divide, as an analyst for NBC Sports.

Whether it’s as an interviewer or interviewee, the future should hold many more years of Earnhardt’s enlightened, conversational insights.

All served up with a distinctive dash of twang.

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