Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a diehard Washington Redskins fan, so perhaps comparing him to a Dallas Cowboy might not be taken as favorably as it’s intended.
Earnhardt, the 15-time winner of the most popular driver on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, is in his second season in NBC Sports’ broadcast booth. And while he might not receive the same quantity of raves as former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has in his two years on CBS’s NFL coverage, his contributions as a charismatic, insightful, and effortlessly likable analyst of his sport are of similar high quality.
“Romo’s amazing, man,’’ said Earnhardt, who will be in Loudon, N.H., Sunday for NBC Sports Network’s coverage of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 from New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “We all see what he does. It’s obvious that he’s a student of the game and really understands the intricacies of his sport well. But he has a way of articulating it that is great too. His ability to translate the complicated details and be a good listen is important.’’
Earnhardt said when he made the transition from driving to broadcasting — he had dabbled in it during his racing career, which included two Daytona 500 victories 10 years apart — he was not worried about what to say, but how it would sound.
“When I got up there in the booth last year, I think I was more worried about cadence than anything else,’’ he said. “Would my sound be appealing or would it be annoying, with my pace and my speed and my twang? Would that be appealing or not appealing?
“You could be the smartest guy on the planet, and you could know everything you need to know about racing and have all the great points and know exactly what to say in every moment. But if you’re not fun to listen to then you’re not gonna be able to be a broadcaster. I was worried whether that stuff would get under people’s skin.’’
Earnhardt has been a spectacular addition to NBC Sports’s coverage, and not just because he’s long established as an appealing and extremely popular personality. His chemistry with lead announcer Rick Allen, analyst (and former Earnhardt crew chief) Steve Letarte, and former driver Jeff Burton comes across as effortless, but the truth is that it comes from mutual respect and an understanding of what everyone is trying to achieve.
“Last weekend in Kentucky [a race won by Kyle Busch], there was a moment when the green flag came out. Some guys had old tires, Kyle had new tires. The opinion of my colleague Steve Letarte was that tires didn’t matter. Old, new, didn’t matter.
So the restart happens and Kyle goes from fifth to fourth for about 10-15 laps and then he drove from that moment right to the front in a very short period of time. And I said, ‘I think the tires those guys have are starting to show up. The fact that they’re older are starting to cost these guys a little time.’
And [Steve] said, ‘I disagree. They’re running the same lap time they were running at the start and Kyle Busch has gotten faster.’ So there are those moments where you disagree. And that can be really good.
“When I started, Letarte and Burton both said, ‘Listen, man. There are times when we’re going to see it differently. Say it right on the broadcast, I don’t agree with that point, this is why. That’s OK. We’re all watching the race. For the most part we still have the same knowledge and understanding. We just see it different.’ ’’
There’s one major lesson Earnhardt takes from his time as a driver: Don’t assume anything.
“When I was a driver, if we ever felt like a broadcaster was putting words in our mouths, we didn’t like that,’’ he said. “I keep that in my mind when I’m working, that I don’t want to say anything that is wrong. I don’t want to have a driver come up in a meeting and go, ‘That’s not right, I wasn’t doing that,’ or ‘that’s not right, that’s not why I was doing that.’ I don’t ever want to be incorrect, so I don’t make assumptions.
“Say a guy crashes. You don’t ever want to say, ‘oh, I bet he’s hurt.’ You can’t do those things. You can’t speculate. You can’t do that with the handle of the car, or a guy’s choices around the race track. You need to ask, and you need to know.
“It’s a fine line. Sometimes you have to say, ‘That car looks loose.’ Or, ‘that was a bad decision.’ You have to call it straight, but your fans want you to be honest. But you need to be sure. I’m still working on all of that, still tuning on it and working on it week to week. I’m still new here, and it’s always OK to admit you don’t know something.’’