Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been praised over the years for his candor, openness and thoughtfulness.
The 14-time Most Popular Driver brings an element of authenticity to his interviews unparalleled in NASCAR, and no interviewer seems to bring this side of Junior out more than NBC Sports’ Dan Patrick. The longtime anchor has built a rapport with Earnhardt and has routinely listed the Hendrick Motorsports driver among his favorite interviewees — and it’s easy to see why.
The “Dan Patrick Show” aired a wide-ranging, 21-minute conversation between the two on Thursday morning. The exchange – originally slated for 10 minutes – took many twists and turns, only to be cut off due to time constraints mid-sentence; it could’ve gone even longer.
Early in the interview after discussing some early career tribulations, Patrick asked Earnhardt if he’d ever tried therapy.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been in therapy in and out of my whole life,” he explained. “I was in therapy as a child and definitely think that therapy is a very useful tool. If you meet the right therapist; I met a lady named Jane that I worked on and off with the last several years and she has changed my life. To meet the right person that you can trust and listen to and sort of absorb what they’re telling you, it can be incredibly helpful.”
Patrick noted that it was unusual for a child to be in therapy.
Earnhardt explained the unique circumstances of his upbringing, and a significant emotional event a young age.
“As a child it was hard to open up or understand why you were there or understand what was the reason for being there. Man, I was a troubled kid. I was going to get kicked out of a Christian school and got sent to military school for a year and a half and I didn’t really have much direction until I got the opportunity to drive race cars. I was really probably more of a disappointment up until probably 1996, ’97 when I started driving in the XFINITY Series in a couple races for Dad and started showing ‘hey, there’s some purpose for me here and here’s direction for me.’
“Having divorced parents and then the fire; we were living with my mom in a mill house near Concord Mills in Kannapolis that caught fire when I was five, six years old. So, I’m standing outside in the yard in the morning watching our house burn down. My mom is broke and doesn’t have anywhere to turn, so she had to move back to Norfolk, Virginia to live with her mother, because that’s the only place she could go. She made the very difficult choice to give up custody of me and my sister at that moment to my dad because she knew that he could provide for us and give us a better life. I was at my mom’s watching our house burn down in the morning and then that evening I was at my dad’s house, rummaging through my toy box in the garage, seeing if all my toys had made the trip. That’s difficult. Probably needed some therapy through all that.”
It also explains why Earnhardt – who it’d be easy to assume would have lived the good life growing up the son of a seven-time champion – admittedly struggled in his adolescence and even into his early 20s.
Those teenage years were especially trying times, and his relationship with his father was complicated, he divulged.
“I was just wanting his attention. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t want his attention in a negative way, I didn’t want whoopin’s and all that stuff. My sister says that I was always acting out and trying to get his attention. Kelley would do things like get good grades, which is what she’s supposed to do to get his attention, and I was doing whatever I could to … I felt like the only way I could get him to talk to me or notice me was if I did something wrong or rebelled or fall back or whatever or made things difficult. I don’t think I did those things on purpose but my sister swears I did.
“He wasn’t around; it wasn’t like we were interacting all the time. He would come home from working in his shop all day long. He’d get home around 9, 10 o’clock and it’s time for us to go to bed. And we’re dying for just five minutes of his time. We just want five minutes just to see him and say hey. He would come in and sit in his La-Z-Boy in the living room and you would sit on the couch and ask him questions and he would not even answer your questions, he was so tired and worn down and so much on his mind about his racing career. This is back in the mid-80s when he was sort of kind of struggling to right the ship, so-to-speak. It was a difficult time but I think that he was really frustrated for a long time with me and who I was going to become and what kind of kid or what kind of person I was going to be.”
Their relationship started to turn a corner around the time Earnhardt got behind the wheel of an XFINITY Series car for a part-time schedule in 1997, at the age of 22.
Racing was a language they could both speak.
“It really clicked as soon as I got in the race car. I don’t know if he knew I could a race car or not, because he never saw me in the late model series from ’92 to ’96; he never saw a race. I ran 159 late model races and I don’t think he saw one of them. He was just going off people’s opinions off whether I had any talent or not.
“Once I got in an XFINITY car, we went to Michigan and ran in the top 10 right there in front of him and he says ‘hey, this is all right,’ so we started talking about the future.”
And that future?
A career that saw Earnhardt earn 26 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins, become the face of the sport and, most importantly, follow a man that found himself along the way.