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Dale Earnhardt Jr. ‘nervous’ watching former teammate Jimmie Johnson at Indy 500

Dale Jr. Jimmie Johnson

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 28: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Jimmie Johnson during Appreci88ion, An Evening With Dale Earnhardt Jr. Presented By Nationwide at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on November 28, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. admits being nervous when he watches his friend and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson zoom around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at speeds exceeding 233 mph.

“I’ve been really excited for Jimmie,” Earnhardt said during a teleconference Tuesday with other NBC Sports analysts to promote the 106th Indy 500 (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBC). “I was talking about that today on the (Dale Jr. Download) podcast. I’m a little bit nervous because he seems to be pushing to the max.

“Every time he’s on the track, it’s like he is on the edge.

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“Nobody is going to reach out and tell a seven-time champion, with all the success he’s had in his career, what to do, how to drive, how to approach anything.

“I’m just pulling for him to have a great experience in the race and have a result that he can be happy with and smile about in the end.

“I am full of anxiety that he’s going to push, push, push too hard, and somehow that might put him in a bad situation. He’s gotten so, so close a few times already this month to some bad situations. But he’s a pro. You trust that he knows what he’s out there doing, understanding the limits of the car.”

Johnson overcame a couple of mistakes last weekend while adapting to a turbo boost of 90 extra horsepower (which was available only during three days of qualifying and practice). He scraped the wall last Friday and then saved his No. 48 Dallara-Honda from a massive crash on the first lap of his Fast 12 run Sunday.

Johnson chuckled Thursday when told of the analysis from Earnhardt, his Hendrick teammate from 2008-17.

“He’s got a good eye for it,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “It’s such an interesting position to be in because these cars have such a high level of grip if you really commit to it. So trying to find that balance of commitment at the right time, that’s what I think I’m getting wrong is at times I’m putting in too big an effort in the wrong area of a turn or at the wrong time. The track’s not there.

“I look back at the Fast 12. My commitment in the car and our turn setting was just a round early. If we’d been more reserved for the Fast 12, I think we would have easily made it (to the Fast Six; Johnson instead qualified 12th).”
Earnhardt will be a part of NBC’s Indy 500 telecast for the fourth time in his career.

His first was in 2019, the last time the Indy 500 was held at full capacity. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was held without a crowd in 2020 and with limited capacity in 2021.

“I’m excited to get the ask from NBC to return to Indy and work the race,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to anybody what it’s like to be there in person on that day. I’ve watched that race my whole life, and most of the time was watching it from the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway, like the rest of the NASCAR industry. We all stopped everything we were doing in that moment and tried to get every minute of viewership we could to see how that was going to play out.

“I had always grown up in the stock car world; that world had captured my heart. When I went to the Indy 500 for the very first time, it’s not even close what that race is like in person compared to anything I had ever experienced in my career.”

He is so excited about the Indy 500 that he is bringing his wife, Amy, with him on Sunday so she can experience the thrill, pageantry, and history for herself.

“I just cannot wait for her to see the size of this event, to feel the tradition that you feel, as the prerace is sort of playing itself out, it’s so special,” Earnhardt explained. “I’m so thankful to be asked to come back. Traditionally in these type of events I would be working with (Rutledge Wood) during the prerace, but I’ll be on the pit box for the prerace show with Townsend Bell. I’ve really enjoyed working alongside him. It’s going to be fun to do that again.

“During the race, I’ll be up there with Danica Patrick and Mike Tirico, like I’ve done in the past. That will be a lot of fun when they drop in to get our take on what we’re watching. That’s such a great location on pit road. You really get a sense of the speed and the energy. You’re in great proximity to the crowd itself. You’re taking all the things that are happening at the racetrack during the event. You’re in close proximity to everything. You really get pretty fired up. Just really makes for an enthusiastic show.

“I’m excited to get into town. It’s going to be an awesome week. Can’t wait to see Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell and everybody. Haven’t seen some of these folks in quite a while.”

Since Earnhardt ended his NASCAR Cup Series career after the 2018 season and began to work with NBC, it has given him a chance to break out of the box and experience new sports along with its personalities.

His Dale Jr. Download podcasts feature interviews with newsmakers in the racing industry (most recently Denny Hamlin) as Earnhardt channels Phil Donahue in getting his guests to open up and bare their souls during the interviews.

The Dale Jr. Download also has allowed the former NASCAR star a chance to dive into IndyCar and its colorful group of personalities.

“I think doing the podcast and the show gave me a little bit more confidence as I do it, as an interviewer,” Earnhardt said. “It challenged me to sort of get outside of that comfort zone and interview not only non-NASCAR drivers and individuals, but non-racing, non-sports individuals.

“We have had a lot of fun talking to a lot of the IndyCar drivers because each driver’s path to where they are and where they will be this Sunday is so unique to themselves. In other forms of motorsport or in stock cars, the paths are maybe not predictable, but unremarkable. That’s not the case with a lot of these IndyCar drivers.

“Their route, there’s never one the same, no two are the same. They travel all across the world seeking opportunities in racing in different countries to eventually somehow find their way here, end up here, with this opportunity to race in IndyCar and in the Indy 500. It’s really compelling to hear how they made those decisions.”

Earnhardt has always respected IndyCar drivers for what they do, but the “Dale Jr. Download” has given him a chance to dive deep into their stories and personalities, notably with recent visits by Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr.

“I think IndyCar has some of the most interesting and entertaining, fun personalities in the drivers,” Earnhardt said. “And they are different than what I’m used to experiencing.

“There’s a difference in approach to being accessible that these drivers have; the way that they need to be accessible in their series, at the racetrack, to the fans; the way I think the IndyCar drivers all seem to recognize the importance of that, and all seem to work together to push not only themselves but the organization, their sport, forward.

“It’s a fun thing to be around. Yeah, we have a lot of fun when we get those guys in the room. It certainly makes us much bigger fans of not only the series but the drivers individually. It’s pretty cool to get to know some of them.

“I can’t wait to run into a couple of those guys this weekend.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500