CHICAGO – Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t get scared by much on or off the racetrack, but he’s dreading next month – and it has nothing to do with the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Hard as it may seem for some of his fans to believe, Earnhardt turns the big 4-0 on October 10. And as he approaches that milestone, Earnhardt admits he’s thinking about it more and more.
“Real nervous,” Earnhardt said during Thursday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Media Day in downtown Chicago. “I don’t know what to think about that. I don’t want to grow up.
“You don’t have much of a choice sometimes with your age when you hit these milestones, but I feel physically and mentally 10 years younger than that. I guess that’s a good thing.”
Earnhardt realizes that he’s seen a lot in his 15-year Sprint Cup career and knows things will eventually start going downhill.
But for now?
“I’m still enjoying what I do,” he said. “I’ve had the best time driving race cars this year. Which surprised me, because I hadn’t been having a good time several years ago and I didn’t know if that was ever going to change.
“I feel really fortunate, to be honest with you. I feel lucky to still be enjoying what I do, the passion. It’s a big deal with this championship Chase and I really hope we can make our fans proud, make all our supporters proud of the job we do.
“I feel there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of people are relying upon us and depending on us. We want to be able to deliver.”
But can he deliver and finally give his long-suffering fans – and himself – that long dreamed about first Sprint Cup championship?
“I do,” he said unequivocally. “I think this is our best shot in the last six, seven years.
“You always see that when the Chase happens, there’s a team that just sort of comes out of nowhere or really ramps up the performance. We don’t have to ramp it up too far, we’ve been doing pretty good. Hopefully, we haven’t shown our best yet and haven’t delivered the goods just yet.”
With that said, Earnhardt admits he’s trying to put thoughts of retirement out of his mind and as far down the road as possible.
“How do I retire? I don’t know how the hell I retire, so I’m going to have to do this a lot longer,” he said matter-of-factly but also with a smile on his face. “I’m fine with that. I’m having fun. I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had.
“When I was younger, I was so naïve about it and just didn’t realize how fortunate I was, how lucky I was to be in the position I was in. I thought I did, but I think I take it more seriously now and really appreciate the situation I’m in.
“That appreciation and passion is still there, and as long as that stuff is still there, you do the details, the extra little things that really matter in the whole picture as a driver.
“When you lose that passion, that drive, you stop doing those little things because you don’t think they’re that important or they don’t quite matter. That’s when you see the performance drop and everything follows suit behind that.
“I think the fact I’m still there, still having fun, hell, I can go another 10 years.”
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’
“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”
Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.
But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.
Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.
Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.
Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.
“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.
“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”
Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.
But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.
“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure
“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”
Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.
Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.
“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.
“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”
Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.
The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.
“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”
Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”
Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”
Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.
“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.