Dale Earnhardt Jr. puts fans first

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Conversation (4:41)

Two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits down with Hannah Storm to reflect on his win and on a feat his father was never able to accomplish. (4:41)

Though it is undeniably his perch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. chooses against viewing NASCAR racing from its most popular seat. Rather, he views it from the farthest reaches of the highest grandstands in Talladega, Ala., and Martinsville, Va., and Bristol, Tenn., and 19 other small towns and cities on the Sprint Cup tour.

Because he cares deeply what the sport's fans see and experience -- all the way down to the quality of the hats they can purchase at his souvenir truck and which drink flavors his sponsors offer at the convenience store.

"I definitely find myself, as I get older, a lot more aware and concerned with the health of the sport. And the fans' perception is the pulse of that," Earnhardt told ESPN.com. "So, as I get older, I need to start thinking about how I've impacted the sport and whether I'm doing what I should be doing to better the sport.

"When you first come in you don't think about those things. You're just trying to make it. You're trying to win for yourself. You're not looking at everything in big-picture mode. But as you get older you do, and you starting thinking about, 'What do the fans want? What makes the fans happy? What makes people entertained?' I definitely think about that more now. A lot more."

Anyone who pays attention to Earnhardt's interviews can tell he thinks about it. Many of those interviews these days end with something akin to, "I can't wait to see what the fans think about it."

The latest of those inquiries deals with AMP Energy's Dale Jr. Sour -- his new signature flavor, due out Wednesday in 7-Eleven stores. AMP approached Earnhardt with the idea. He was thrilled and spent the next several weeks deciding on the flavor that best represented him. Ultimately that answer was sour green grape.

"That's my go-to snack, instead of heading for the junk food," Earnhardt said. "I keep sour grapes in the fridge all the time. And I eat those all day long, all week long, all month. All the time."

He sat down with the AMP folks and some 15 different versions of sour green grape flavors. Some, he said, obviously tasted very similar. He drank and tasted and drank and tasted all day long, and finally picked the one he liked best. He had endorsed special flavors and cans before. But the taste-testing day made it feel personal to him -- genuine, official, like his input really mattered to the sponsor partner.

"It's very tart, as you'd imagine," he said. "But it's very good by itself and maybe great as a mixer. Good for all occasions. I'm excited to see what the fans think."

(See? Fans.)

The same goes for the hats he wears at the racetrack. Earnhardt claims he has a big head (he says crew chief Steve Letarte does, too) and most hats just don't fit well. He is very particular about this. "We got New Era hats this year," he started. ... "In years past, the hats we had were just ... crap. And I had to wear them. I know what they were. They were crap."

While that "crap" sat atop Earnhardt's head in the garage area, he was stewing about the folks who just spent $30 on one at the souvenir truck. The same goes for some of the T-shirts bearing his likeness, he said.

He was embarrassed by the lack of quality. Those hats and those shirts, he said, are a direct representation of him.

"Again, I want my fans to enjoy what they have and what they get out of the sport," he stressed. "You think about that a lot more when you get older."

So this year he chose to change it up. He'd had enough. New Era sent a representative to JR Motorsports, who proceeded to fill an entire conference room table with hats. Earnhardt tried every last one of them on and offered feedback. A 7 3/8 sized hat (Junior's size) in one style didn't fit the same as the same size in another style. So he continued the exercise until he found several styles he really liked that also fit well. His explanation is humorous.

"Now I get to wear that, instead of those," he said. "We had hats last year that just didn't fit your head at all. They were too small. Steve's the same way. He's got a big head just like I do, and we have to get hats that get down on your head. I'd wear some hats that, if I didn't have a tight, tight haircut, they just wouldn't fit on my head! A nice breeze would've blew it right off!

"I was getting real frustrated with that. I know it's particular, but I'm happy to wear these hats because I'm partnered with a legit hat company that my fans can get a hat from. When they go into Lids and see the kind of hats you can buy in there, and the quality you get, that's what you get when you buy one of my New Era hats.

"You couldn't find that kind of quality last year in the stuff we were selling and the stuff I was wearing. I hope my fans are excited about that, because, hell, I'm signing hats all the damn time. I know they're buying them. So now they're buying quality."

(See? Fans.)

This isn't just about retail, either. Far from it. His thought process includes on-track performance, too. Because, from his perspective, on-track performance directly impacts his fans' race experience.

"I love running good because it meets expectations, whether it's the fans' or my own," Earnhardt said. "And I know that they come to be entertained, they pull for a particular driver to be entertained by that driver's success and that driver's personality, and they relate to that individual.

"And we've been working harder and harder trying to get, performance-wise, where I feel like the fans are entertained."

He admits he may consider this thought process too deeply at times.

"When I run a race, I, maybe inadvertently or unknowingly, concern myself with whether the fan was entertained or got what he expected or whether they got what I think they deserved out of me and out of the race," Earnhardt said.