Dale Earnhardt Jr. on being NASCAR driver: 'I didn't want to work for a living'
Three days after a fellow NASCAR driver took a verbal shot at Dale Earnhardt Jr. for "stunting" NASCAR's growth, Junior said his career has far exceeded his expectations.
In his media session Friday at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt said he got into NASCAR as a driver because he "didn't want to work for a living," and after he won a few Busch (now Xfinity) Series races in the late 1990s he was surprised and thrilled he'd be able to have a career in the sport.
"I hated working for a living. I didn't want to work for a living," Earnhardt said. "This is silly, but the way I thought in ’97, 'Man, if I could get into an Xfinity car and win just one race, what do I need to do just to say … that's enough to keep me around?'"
"So when I won my first few races in the Xfinity Series, I thought, 'Well, all right, I'll be able to keep a job in this sport for a while because of this little bit of success I've had.'"
Of course, Earnhardt has done much more than win a couple of lower-series races. He won two Busch Series championships (1998-99). Since making his full-time NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2000, he's won 26 races, two Daytona 500s and the sport's all-star race.
Earnhardt also has been voted the sport's most popular driver 14 times, from 2003-16. Earlier this week, NASCAR Cup driver Kevin Harvick, speaking on his weekly SiriusXM Radio show, made a surprising criticism of Earnhardt, noting that Earnhardt's massive popularity, despite his lack of championships, "has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR."
Earnhart addressed those remarks Thursday, calling them "hurtful." Friday, he sounded very much like a driver who is comfortable with his career achievements. Earlier this year he announced he would retire from full-time competition at the end of this season.
Junior said he never expected he'd come into NASCAR and win seven series championships, like his father, Dale Earnhardt.
"I didn't come here to be the most popular guy. I didn't come in here thinking I was going to win seven championships," Earnhardt said. "I just wanted to be able to do it. I didn't want to flame out in two years and be gone and have to work. I just wanted to be able to make a living doing it.
"It's turned out to be much, much more than that. Every time I win a race, it's a surprise to me. Any time we did anything really big, like win the Xfinity Series championships or the Daytona 500s, even to this day it's hard for me to believe that it happened to me."