Dale Earnhardt Jr. hoping to be in broadcast booth 'for a long time'

Broadcasting isn't just a passing fancy for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who relishes the chance at a new career. David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

NEW YORK -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. clearly enjoyed perks of his new job Wednesday.

The perks of a media tour to promote the start of NASCAR races on NBC didn't initially appear all that different than in his previous life as a NASCAR driver, with a full day of interviews while bumping into celebrities. But he could savor the moments a little more than in the past, when worries about his race car used to dominate his mind.

As he shuffled through several media stops Wednesday, Earnhardt totally geeked out when meeting Kandi Burruss of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." Oh, he tried to pass it off as more something that would make his wife, Amy, jealous, but he didn't have much success convincing those who saw the fanboy giddiness in him.

Burruss told Earnhardt she had met him before at a racetrack. Earnhardt couldn't remember the encounter.

When a race-car driver meets a celebrity prerace, those meet-and-greets turn into fleeting moments. A driver goes through the motions, really just focused on the green flag.

The 43-year-old Earnhardt appears to enjoy and savor life, not worrying about losing spots on a restart as he heads into his new career. But amid all the appearances Wednesday, he squeezed in lunch with NBC Sports Group executive producer Sam Flood, the man who hired him -- and can fire him.

Earnhardt knows something about what it will take if he wants a broadcasting career to last as long as his 21 years on the NASCAR national racing stage.

"I won't be there because I'm just Dale Jr.," Earnhardt said. "That won't be enough to keep me around. Sam has to put the best broadcast on there he can. He's going to do whatever it takes to do that. And I've got to hold up my end of it."

Earnhardt debuts in the NBC broadcast booth this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway after months of rehearsals and begging for feedback.

He doesn't want to suck. Not just because he hates failure. Not just because the sport needs him to rank as the next great driver-turned-broadcaster as it tries to reverse the trend of declining attendance and TV ratings.

"My fear when I started racing [was] would I be chewed up and spit out real quickly," Earnhardt said. "So I'm calling and going, 'Hey, I don't want to be chewed up and spit out.' I want to be given a fair opportunity to take in the criticism and make adjustments.

"I want to be given fair opportunity to right the things I'm doing wrong, and I want a good swing at this because I do like it [and] ... I hate disappointing people and letting people down."

While Jeff Gordon gave Fox a view fresh from the driver's seat to the broadcast booth when he made the transition in 2016, Earnhardt gives NBC not only that, but also the presence of the sport's most popular driver for each of the past 15 years. And while that means some might tune in because of Earnhardt, it also means he carries the responsibility of owning an influential voice.

"You can't just be spouting nonsense and think people aren't going to see through it."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.

No announcer will have the credibility of an Earnhardt, at least at the start. But Earnhardt believes his credibility will only last as long as people can trust him.

He feels determined not to embellish garage conversations or history, because he knows how drivers feel when they hear that on the telecast. He promises to do the legwork required.

"When you were a driver, if you're going to be somebody who speaks up and is opinionated, you'll learn quickly if you don't do the homework before you put your opinion out there, you can get yourself into trouble and be made a fool," Earnhardt said.

He pledged Wednesday that if he doesn't know something, he'll just say, "I don't have the facts."

"If I have any doubts of an opinion of mine, I am more than likely to withhold," Earnhardt said, "just because I don't want to lose any credibility with the people listening that when they hear me say something they're [like], 'Well, he's been wrong before, should we believe this coming out of his mouth?'

"You can't just be spouting nonsense and think people aren't going to see through it."

Just as he has the trust of the fans, Earnhardt will at least at the outset have the trust of the garage.

"He's very inquisitive and still wants to be part of what's going on currently," veteran driver Denny Hamlin said. "I see him as being a lot like Jeff Burton and those guys who will text the drivers midweek and ask questions about, 'Hey, what's going on here?' [and] really staying in tune with what is going on right now, not what was happening in 1975.

"I think that he'll be good about doing that."

No matter how well the rehearsals have gone -- NBC has brought the talent to a studio for three races, where they broadcast the race to no one -- Earnhardt will enter the booth nervous this weekend. That's just his nature.

"He gets nervous about a lot of things people wouldn't think about," said good friend Martin Truex Jr., the defending Cup Series champion. "He's a little self-conscious. He's like a normal person.

"People are like, 'That's Dale Jr., he doesn't get nervous,' or, 'He's so big-time that things don't bother him, being in the public eye, being in the spotlight.' Those things, believe it or not, bother him quite a bit."

Earnhardt has reason to feel nervous after the incredible hype and buildup to his presence in the booth. From commercials to visits to the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup Final to promote his work for NBC, no one won't watch because of a lack of marketing Earnhardt.

Finally, however, Earnhardt can truly get to work.

"He has no reason to be nervous, but he will be," said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief from 2011-2014 and now an NBC race-analyst colleague. "That's why his fans love him. That's what makes him so endearing. ... Dale has a great responsibility because he only has to be him, which is the easiest thing for any one of us to do."

Who is Earnhardt? He's a driver who loves racing but also loves the passion of fandom. He knows how he feels about his beloved Washington Redskins and the excitement and disappointment when the team performs well or collapses.

And the nervousness of his new career correlates with the nervousness he had when he started racing.

"I was really nervous in the car thinking not, 'Am I going to lose this race,'" Earnhardt said. "It was more, 'Am I going to not be able to do this for the rest of my life? Am I going to be good enough to be around? What do I have got to do to make it?'

"[I thought], 'Hell, win a couple of races? Look at other drivers -- I know a couple of other drivers that only have one win, and they're still here.' I'm thinking in my mind [that] I've got to win a couple races and maybe I can do this for a living for a long time."

In another mimicking of what pushed him as a driver, Earnhardt will try to feed his fear of not wanting to disappoint.

"When I worked in racing, I always found someone that I raced for -- it was my dad, it was Letarte, it was Rick [Hendrick], it was Greg [Ives]," Earnhardt said about his crew chiefs and owners. "I had to have somebody that I didn't want to disappoint that was motivating for me.

"And I found that, too, in broadcasting with Sam Flood and [VP of NASCAR production Jeff] Behnke and my teammates in the booth and Dale Jarrett and Kyle [Petty]. I want to make them guys go, 'We love having you on the team. This is awesome.' I don't want to be a failure."

Few believe he will fail.

"Dale is going to do a great job, and he's going to be great for the sport in that role," Truex said. "He's going to be able to give a lot of insight to the race fans that maybe a lot of others at this time can't, because he has been in the car recently. He has a way of explaining things that could make people understand."

For Earnhardt, he hopes his hunting buddy knows what he's talking about. For now, he will have self-doubt. For now, he will have nerves. For now, he has a rookie stripe and all that comes with talking about the sport instead of competing in it.

If he fails, the appearances on talk shows will remain -- his interviews Wednesday focused much more on the recent birth of his daughter and an upcoming book about battling concussions than they did about his new career. He didn't talk much about how he has worked harder at the start of his second job than he did at the start of his first one. Frankly, many just expect him to go into the booth, be himself and create broadcasting gold thanks to his folksy, beer-drinking-and-barbecuing-neighbor ability to relate to both fans and drivers.

So maybe it was appropriate that as he left his appearance Wednesday on "The Dan Patrick Show," Earnhardt met actor Michael Douglas, the next guest. Actors can often never retire if they have the energy to battle for roles and the desire to continue to work on set.

Douglas, 30 years older than Earnhardt, still performs, and people flock to see his work.

Few would doubt Earnhardt could still work NASCAR telecasts in 30 years. Behnke gushes when talking about the rehearsals, praising Earnhardt's energy and preparedness as much as Earnhardt loved that first time in the booth.

"I keep telling him we're going to kick off the training wheels off ... and this is going to get real," Letarte said.

So welcome to the stage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Actors such as Douglas likely just wouldn't enjoy life without a purpose, without the next project or stage. And Earnhardt is like one of those actors -- just hobnobbing with the celebrities and living in the past is not enough. Since the first time he stepped into the booth for a telecast, Earnhardt found a new love.

"I went from thinking, 'I wonder if I can be a broadcaster, will anybody give me a chance, maybe I can get a shot at it,' to thinking, 'Man, I want to do this for a long time,'" Earnhardt said.

"I wasn't ready to quit working."