Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrapping up final season more relaxed than ever

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he is finally enjoying all of the aspects that go into being the sport's most popular driver, including the numerous speaking engagements and autograph sessions. Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just finished meeting with a few guests of his sponsor Nationwide at his motor home less than three hours before the Brickyard 400. About to hop in a van to go to a Chevrolet appearance, he has a couple of minutes to chat with a reporter. Then his brother, Kerry, comes over with some people he wants Earnhardt to meet.

"It's my brother," Earnhardt said. "What a treat!"

Earnhardt spends a couple of minutes with his brother's guests, takes a couple of photos and then gets in the van.

The van weaves through a tight area with lots of people as some country rock -- "Amie" from the 1970s -- blares on the radio, but all Earnhardt worries about is the van not hitting anyone.

"It drives my anxiety up," Earnhardt said. "Don't it drive yours up? All these people walking around? I'd be nervous."

The van gets Earnhardt cleanly to his destination a minute ahead of schedule. Then Earnhardt is on stage with a couple of Hendrick Motorsports teammates and proceeds to answer questions.

He repeats a line he has used often about trolls on social media.

"I have never seen anything bad on my timeline," Earnhardt said. "I think that Twitter put a filter on it. I'm not sure anyone will admit to it. But I only get sunshine on my timeline."

The crowd roars.

Earnhardt appears to have fun or at least not be as bothered as he used to be. There was a time when Earnhardt would dread this type of appearance.

"You would take him out to a track Q&A that had 500-600 people and they're all screaming for him -- Dale was never comfortable in that," said Mike Davis, the managing director of the Dale Jr. brand who traveled with Earnhardt for several years. "He was never Kenny Wallace that could talk to anybody. ... He soldiered through it, but it took a while for him to get comfortable in those big, crowded appearance settings."

"It was out of his element. And you're talking about the guy who is continually being voted most popular driver."

While Earnhardt has been much more comfortable in these settings the past few years, he talked this past October about how he needed to enjoy the appearances. He realized while sitting out the final 18 races of 2016 because of concussions that the stress of racing affected how he felt about the distraction of an appearance on race day.

"When I was driving, I really didn't enjoy everything I did outside the car," Earnhardt said in October as he continued to recover and rehabilitate from vision and balance issues. "I did all that stuff reluctantly just to do the driving part. ... The pressure of racing made the majority of everything that came with it miserable. And I am probably responsible for controlling that.

"Being out of the car, I've got to find a way that, if I'm going to race more, how to not feel so much pressure that it makes everything else intolerable or hard to do."

Earnhardt returned to racing in 2017, and he announced in April that this year would serve as his last NASCAR Cup season. He has had far from a glorious final season. He has posted just four top-10s in 22 starts and sits 23rd in the standings.

That certainly hasn't helped his attitude about having to shake hands and talk shop on race days. But following Earnhardt to a couple of appearances in the past five weeks shows he seems to enjoy the interaction more than in the past.

Earnhardt heads this weekend to Michigan International Speedway, the site of some of his biggest Cup wins, and would love to find a way to resurrect that glory. But he knows that, even if his car is running poorly, he'll have to step up his game in the hours before the race.

"It's funny because the race car has a habit of -- even when you're running good, even when things are going great -- the race car has a habit of raining on your parade, so to speak," Earnhardt said after the meet-and-greet at Indianapolis. "It's a constant sense of stress and tension in the back of your mind all of the time.

"Being this is my last season, I kind of know, at Homestead, that's it. I'll be done. I kind of don't get so stressed out, and I am enjoying everything that goes along with driving the car a lot more than I used to."

The "retirement" tour has only amped up his appearances. He dedicates 30 minutes each week with the media at each track where he will race for the final time. That is the time allotted for gifts from the track and for many of the local media to get Earnhardt to reminisce about his favorite times at that locale.

He also has extra work because of the races he missed last year. Drivers often participate in a certain number of youth autograph sessions. Earnhardt did two in recent weeks -- at Indianapolis and Pocono, the Pocono one a makeup for his missing the session last year while out with the concussion.

"What became important to Dale was getting back to normal, and that became his motivation," Davis said. "That [didn't just] include the race car -- that's obviously the biggest part of it -- but it was everything that goes with his racing career.

"That includes appearances. That includes the things that he used to dread now he can appreciate them more. You can only appreciate them more when you've had something to make you evaluate the value in it. Or especially when it might get snatched from you."

Earnhardt thinks he's doing a good job of it, but he can't really tell why. For instance, he said he couldn't explain to Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott (or any young driver) the advice that would help others enjoy the appearances amid the race weekend.

"It's hard to because you have to kind of embrace it," Earnhardt said. "I had to do the same thing with all my out-of-market appearances [during the week]. I had to do the same thing with photo shoots.

"You can go in there miserable and it will be miserable, or you can go in there and try to embrace it and socialize and laugh and have fun with it and you end up probably having a good time. It took me a long time to get that right."

Obviously, the stress only increases when things don't go well on the racetrack.

"It's definitely easier to get miserable when you're running bad," Earnhardt said. "I had some hard times trying to do right. We weren't running good there in '09, 2010 right before I got with [crew chief Steve] Letarte.

"Whoever I was around back then, it was probably not a lot of fun."

Earnhardt has several people who try to make his life easier at these events. Hendrick Motorsports has a person assigned to his team, and Earnhardt also has a representative who handles his scheduling to get him from place to place. He knows many of the executives and hosts of appearances.

For instance, Nationwide sports marketing director Jim McCoy hosted a question-and-answer session with Earnhardt a couple of hours before the race at Kentucky last month. In the crowd were more than 800 Nationwide employees who had paid $88 for tickets to the race, for food and to listen to Earnhardt.

Earnhardt appeared comfortable in the setting.

"You have to remind yourself there is a purpose for these things and there's a reason why you're doing them," Earnhardt said. "That always helped me if I sat down and talked ... anybody in our camp, why am I here, what's my purpose to be here, what am I accomplishing, who am I meeting."

"That helps me understand what the objective is. When you go into these appearances not really caring of all that, you tend to really not understand what you're trying to accomplish."

It wasn't always that way. Even when Earnhardt was sponsored by Budweiser and went to bars, Earnhardt didn't look at it as a fun place to work.

"His appearances were typically in bars," Davis said. "That's a fun environment. Those also were the ones he didn't look forward to the most."

Some appearances are easy to understand. Before the talk with the Nationwide employees, he met with kids from the Nationwide Children's Hospital. He signed some autographs. Nationwide also had hoods and other things to sign.

Then he's pointed on to the stage. He explains how he is a customer and says that is why the marketing campaign works. He explains how he was so bad early in practice at Kentucky that the team decided not to even go to qualifying setups in practice because he had to race well.

"We needed to spend more time in race trim -- it wouldn't matter where we qualified if we don't race well," Earnhardt told the crowd.

As he gets off stage, he shakes hands, stops for a photo with a kid and then is whisked away on a golf cart.

A couple of weeks later, when talking to the guests outside his motor home, he explains how Martinsville is called the paper clip and a driver is always racing someone at a short track, while at a bigger track, such as Indianapolis where he is at the moment, a driver has to race track.

He doesn't seem overly concerned about the car he will get into in a few hours, even though everyone knows he is.

"Am I less stressed this year than I have been all the other years?" Earnhardt asks Kerry. Kerry: "He has been."

Well, there you go.

Something is going as planned this year for Earnhardt in his comeback from a concussion.

"It was like a master reset for him -- I've got to understand what is important to me and what am I willing to fight for," Davis said. "Is it to get back racing, or is to just have a healthy lifestyle?

"When you have to hit that master reset, it became clear that getting back in the race car was most important to him -- and all that came with it."