DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR fans are eagerly anticipating the return this weekend of summer action from Chicagoland Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday; NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and it’s fair to say they are equally excited about who will help narrate the story — the sport’s 15-time most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Since stepping away from the driver’s seat on a full-time basis following the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Homestead, Earnhardt has been preparing to make his television debut in the NBC Sports announcing booth — a career move that looks promising for both Earnhardt and the sport’s rabid fandom.
Earnhardt did some on-air work during the network’s Winter Olympics broadcasts and has been a frequent contributor to its weekday NASCAR show segments. A midseason start to his race-day duties has given him plenty of time to adjust to his new off-track reality.
Fox Sports officially handed over NASCAR race broadcasts this week to NBC and its highly anticipated new hire. For good measure, and for maximum exposure, Junior will continue to help promote the changeover — on Wednesday alone, he’ll appear on “Megyn Kelly Today,” the Dan Patrick Show, E! News and the “Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”
Earnhardt has been similarly busy in the months following his last race, juggling the Good Life and TV Life.
His NBC Sports gig has included TV work at the NHL Finals. He and his wife, Amy, were featured in a four-part series on DIY Network showing them renovating their house in Key West, Fla.
NBCSN picked up his hugely popular “Dale Jr. Download” podcast for television. He has spent a lot of time on social media offering insight and opinions on things from the benefits of iRacing to elevation angles for baby swings (he and Amy welcomed their first child, a girl, Isla Rose, on April 30).
His JR Motorsports NASCAR Xfinity Series team celebrated its 40th win, courtesy of Justin Allgaier at Iowa Speedway two weeks ago. He cut the ribbon to open a new Whiskey River restaurant franchise at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Beginning this weekend, he will be talking, evaluating and prognosticating as his former competitors take the green flag. By all accounts, it’s difficult to determine who is more excited about this — Junior or NASCAR fans. He seems genuinely thrilled and at peace with this next chapter in his life after 19 years of NASCAR competition highlighted by back-to-back Xfinity championships and two Daytona 500 victories.
The transition really began a few months prior to his final Cup race. The world began to see a different Dale Jr. — there was a distinctive new openness in how he spoke and what he felt comfortable addressing. He showed vulnerability as a superstar athlete willing to pursue a new line of work while still in his prime — and still so beloved.
The outstanding news for NBC Sports is that the relationship between Junior and NASCAR fans looks to translate wonderfully to the television screen.
Over the past two decades, Dale Jr. has transformed from a shy, burgeoning superstar into a bona fide expert who will be an interesting, and entertaining, listen on TV. His presence and personality should translate well in the broadcast booth, where he has already shown a willingness to be candid and honest and the drive to be insightful.
The connection between Earnhardt and the sport he loves is strong and vital, and the fans — who have long kept him in their hearts — couldn’t be more eager for the opportunity to welcome their hero back to the track and into their homes.
Holly Cain writes for the NASCAR Wire Service.