After retiring from the NASCAR Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the switch to broadcasting with NBC Sports.
The former driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet had minimal experience when he joined the NBC’s on-air crew, which includes longtime NASCAR analyst Rick Allen, retired driver Jeff Burton and Earnhardt’s former crew chief, Steve Letarte. The network recently took over the Cup Series schedule – FOX Sports has the first half of the season – and will air its third race Saturday with the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
So following Dale Jr.’s first two race broadcasts, For The Win asked Letarte – who was Earnhardt’s crew chief from 2011 to 2014 and won a Daytona 500 with him – to evaluate his former driver’s on-air performance.
Letarte is in his third NASCAR broadcasting season with NBC and called the reunion “surreal” and “a blast.”
Letarte said he continues to remind Earnhardt how fortunate he has been to have his first two broadcasts be at the most exciting races of the season – the Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway and the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
That said, the rookie did a great job.
“I would give him flying colors, a great passing grade,” Letarte said.
He added that, like he and Burton, NBC hired Junior to be himself because his personality is a huge part of what has drawn countless NASCAR fans to him over the years. You don’t get to be the 15-time most popular driver without having something special.
So while Earnhardt is definitely still learning, fans have been treated to authentic Dale Jr. through these first two races, Letarte said.
“I was hoping the fans would get Dale Jr.,” he continued. “I know that sounds silly but TV – it’s not difficult, it’s not brain surgery. When you have that microphone and you know millions of people are listening, you need to make sure you’re staying genuine to who you are.
“And I felt like we got 100 percent Dale Jr., which, as long as we continue to do that, it’s going to be a fun, fun broadcast season.”
After Earnhardt’s first race, “Slide job!” emerged as his catchphrase, which he repeatedly yelled as Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson battled it out on the last lap.
Letarte said he’s hardly surprised that a couple words out of Junior’s mouth are already on t-shirts.
“He’s had the same sort of signature his whole life, whether it was on the podcast, on the radio or on Twitter,” Letarte said. “If we can’t succeed at being ourselves, we’re really in trouble.”
“His following is gigantic and people are going to gravitate to his charisma and his natural, creative way of communication. He reminds me a lot of John Madden.
“Dale Jr.’s not in the booth because he’s a journalism major with a polished delivery. That’s not why he’s there, nor should it be. He’s there because he’s a very charismatic driver with a huge fan following – not to mention a great resume and what you’re looking for as a commentator.”
Earnhardt also had a great line following Erik Jones’ victory Saturday night at Daytona, poking fun at the 22 year old’s hair.
There’s a good chance, at some point, broadcasting for Earnhardt will get more challenging.
“I’m not sure if he’s ready for it or not until you get the test,” Letarte said. “Every once in a while, you’ll get that test where we as broadcasters are responsible for putting an exciting broadcast on, regardless of what drivers are doing on the race track.”
It’s easy to do that when the races are filled with thrilling passes, exciting finishes and crazy wrecks. But the less intense races are where it gets tricky, and the Cup Series still has 18 left on the schedule.
“If the race loses a little potency, it’s our job to deliver stories, and I think that will be the next challenge for Dale, as it was for me, as it was for Jeff.
“And I think he’ll be great, but man, he has been blessed with two great races, and I keep telling him that. They won’t always be that way.”
Ahead of Earnhardt’s first NASCAR broadcasts, he was open about how he wanted to be exceptionally prepared and succeed at his new job in the way he did in his previous one.
He had short segments at the Super Bowl and in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the Winter Olympics. He practiced analyzing races and took notes from people like Letarte. But his former crew chief also encouraged him to note how a variety of other broadcasters prepare “because there is no blueprint.”
“You’re preparing for a test, but no one knows what’s on the test and that’s the idea,” he continued. “Prepare for a lack of action because action is easy to cover.”