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Earnhardt Jr. full of fun off track

CONCORD, N.C. -- It began with such a simple question.

"What are you working on outside the track?" Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR's most popular driver suddenly became NASCAR's most compelling driver, sharing things the five veteran reporters there were unaware of.

Earnhardt talked about his passion for cooking and cooking television shows, about relating to the frustrations and expectations of Danica Patrick, about how the losing streak golfer Tiger Woods just ended gives him hope that his streak will end soon.

He talked about eating 20 of the famous Martinsville Speedway hot dogs this weekend, about how the microscope Tim Tebow lives under is twice that of his, about watching random soccer and lacrosse matches to fill his fantasy sports fix, about playing in basketball and softball leagues, about feeling better about his career and personal life than he has in a long time.

He did so in a 26-minute interview that he gave because two reporters missed the 21-minute interview he did earlier, a second chance few drivers or athletes in any sport would give.

You walked away realizing that, as badly as Earnhardt wants his 133-race losing streak to end, there are things in his life outside of racing that make him interesting.

"So, what's up?" Earnhardt said with a sigh as he settled into a chair.

And away we went. Earnhardt was so fresh and innocent that one couldn't help but be captivated by the myriad of topics he discussed after nearly two hours of learning how to drift for a Degree Men video shoot.

One got the feeling he would have talked all day if he didn't have plans to cook dinner and watch the 1980 movie "Flash Gordon."

You also got the feeling his losing streak indeed might end soon, perhaps on Sunday at Martinsville, where Earnhardt led late a year ago before finishing second to Kevin Harvick.

You got the feeling we might see the same sense of relief on Earnhardt's face that there was a week earlier when Woods won for the first time since 2009.

"I've been pulling for him to succeed," said Earnhardt, who hasn't won since Michigan in 2008. "I related to the pressure he was under the last couple of years, and all the doubts about his abilities and whether he would get back to where he wanted to be. I felt like I kind of knew where he was mentally.

"For him to come back and win gives me confidence in my ability to do the same thing."

Earnhardt wasn't comparing his talent to that of one who is among the best -- if not the best -- ever at his profession. He doesn't have that kind of ego.

But …

"There's things I can draw from his experience and what he's going through that I see and can relate to," Earnhardt said. "So hopefully, I can win a race and know what that feels like.

"I'm sure it would be a huge relief. I think we're really close."

Drifting

Earnhardt took his Chevrolet hard and fast into the turn, pulled the hand brake, and spun out of control.

"It was really hard," Earnhardt explained of drifting. "It's just like people watching NASCAR and saying, 'Man, that looks easy. How hard can that be, going around in circles?' "

Earnhardt finally got where he could get relatively clean around the course, but still gave himself a 2 on a scale of 1-10.

Here's what was interesting. Earnhardt didn't give up. He showed the competitiveness and desire that some of his critics doubt exist.

"It's like when you want to do good at something, and you're like, '… I want to get this. I don't want to go home and be thinking about this all night,'" Earnhardt said. "I'm competitive, man. Competitive."

If Earnhardt were as lazy as some think, he wouldn't be bothered by his drifting that resembled Martina Navratilova on "Dancing With The Stars." He wouldn't have cared.

"I don't think we're going to be using any of the techniques we learned today [at Martinsville]!" Earnhardt joked.

When it was suggested that he could use the technique to perfect a victory burnout at Martinsville, Earnhardt laughed again.

"Uh, no," he said. "When I get the good fortune of ever doing a damn burnout, we really don't care where we end up, just as long as we don't hit anything."

Cooking

Earnhardt was NASCAR's highest-paid driver in 2011, banking $28 million, according to Forbes. So, when he mentioned doing all of his cooking, it raised a few eyebrows in the room.

"Don't you have people that do that for you?" he was asked.

"No," Earnhardt replied. "I've got a lady that does a little cleaning around the house, and, if I asked her to cook, I'm sure she would. But I feel bad asking her to do it because it's easy to do. So I just do it.

"I enjoy learning how to cook because I like to eat. Eating is good. Eating is fun."

Earnhardt might spend just as many hours on the Internet looking up recipes as known cooking enthusiast Patrick, who drives his No. 7 Nationwide Series car at JR Motorsports. They don't exchange recipes, by the way.

Earnhardt cooked steaks for team owner Rick Hendrick when Hendrick was recruiting him to Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. He considers tacos and French toast among his specialties. He once made his own French dip because none was in the house.

"I just Google whatever the hell I want to cook, and I try to cook it by what they tell me to do," Earnhardt said. "If it's not good, I don't eat it."

Don't question his cooking skills, either. Earnhardt gets more defensive about them than his driving skills.

"I can cook anything," Earnhardt said. "Anything. I'm good."

Earnhardt apparently will eat almost anything, too. He expects to go through more of the red-dyed Martinsville hot dogs than all three of his HMS teammates, who likely won't touch one.

Earnhardt holds the coleslaw and onions, but he makes up for that with extra chili. He has eaten six at one sitting.

"They're small, man," Earnhardt said. "But on a whole weekend, I'll hit 20 pretty easy. I'll get three as soon as I get there, three for lunch, probably take two on the helicopter home. That's … eight right there.

"And then I'll get three more for Sunday before the race.

That's only 11, so there must be another nine or so on Saturday. Pass the Tums, please.

"They're really good, especially when they're freshly made," Earnhardt said. "Like if you can go up there and get lucky enough to get them made right on the spot. Damn, it's good."

Earnhardt likes watching television shows about food, too. "Restaurant: Impossible" and "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" are two of his favorites.

"I love that …," Earnhardt said of the second one in particular, a show that features greasy spoons across the country. "I write down those things, and, if we go to a race near one, I try to go."

And no, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne don't accompany him. Neither does crew chief Steve Letarte.

"He's a health freak," Earnhardt said. "I've been doing better. I've lost a lot of weight."

Danica Patrick

Earnhardt was almost in soliloquy form as he evaluated Patrick's first five races as a full-time Nationwide driver.

"As a driver, you put a lot of pressure on yourself, and, when you don't finish where you should finish, you get really mad at yourself," Earnhardt said. "I could tell her, 'Look, man. You have what it takes to just go out there and do nothing and just finish in the top 15.'

"But that's not an acceptable goal for her. She sees herself, 'I should finish in the top five; I want to challenge for wins.' Those aren't unrealistic goals for her, but, when you're a driver, you don't see what the rest of the world sees."

Earnhardt easily could have been talking about himself and his career struggles. Or, if you really want to simplify it, his day of drifting.

"I'm listening to what he's saying," Earnhardt said of his instructor. "Every time I would try it, I would gain just a little tiny bit. … I wanted to go in chunks.

"And I couldn't. It wasn't happening. And I was getting mad. And I'm going to have to go home tonight and go, 'Hey, man, don't beat yourself up about not being the best drifter in the world at the end of the day.'"

That's how Earnhardt wants Patrick to approach the rest of the Nationwide season that has her 17th in points with only one finish on the lead lap.

He believes that because he had to do it after his rookie season in Cup that got off to a fast start with two wins in the first 11 races but fizzled with no top-10s in the final 20.

"She needs to tell herself or hear it from other people that it is a long process and she has time to grasp it, and she can relax and let that happen naturally," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt firmly believes Patrick has a future in this sport.

"I know that she's frustrated," he said. "I'm frustrated to see how it's [gone] for her. She deserves better fortune. She just needs to be patient, don't really worry about so much her progression and just go out and learn and race, have fun.

"What she did last year, she came in so open-minded. There were no goals, no nothing. She needs to sort of revert back to not worrying about people's opinions and expectations."

Like her boss, who doesn't stress nearly as much as he once did.

"Well, everything always is easier from the other side," Earnhardt said.

So close

Fans were on their feet as Earnhardt took the lead with about 20 laps left in last year's Martinsville spring race. The driver of the No. 88 could taste victory then more than any other time the past four years outside of running out of gas in the lead on the last lap at Charlotte this past May.

"Then it started to slip and slide a little bit," Earnhardt said of his car. "I started to realize it would be quite difficult to win the race."

The crowd moaned. Harvick even felt bad for winning, understanding what a victory for Earnhardt would mean for the sport.

"I was like, 'Man, I'm going to be the bad guy here, but I've got to do what I've got to do,'" Harvick said.

That race, plus a fast start to this season that includes a second-place finish at Daytona and third this past week at California, gives Earnhardt confidence he can win this weekend.

That he has three consecutive Martinsville top-10s and had five consecutive top-5s from 2002 to 2004 doesn't hurt, either.

Earnhardt would like nothing more than to give HMS its 11th win in the past 19 at the Virginia track and give Hendrick his 200th career win.

If he does, you can bet Hendrick's milestone will be overshadowed by the end of Earnhardt's streak.

"I don't think he'd have a problem with that," Earnhardt said with a laugh.
Earnhardt could have kept talking, but there was dinner to cook and "Flash Gordon" starting promptly at 8 p.m.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel for me right now," Earnhardt said. "I know I'm not where I want to be, but we're getting close to where I should be. I feel lucky to be there."

And all this began with a simple question.