AVONDALE, Ariz. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. says the best thing about carrot juice is it’s not prune juice.
He takes doses of both these days. Such is the compromise one makes to continue being a professional athlete at 38. Twenty months shy of the big 4-0 birthday, Earnhardt has clearly grown up, and the balancing act in that is forestalling any signs of growing old.
So he’s gone on a health kick to stave off the weight gain he noticed last NASCAR season. It happens to us all, but it’s a bigger deal when you’re contorting yourself into a stock car each Sunday and pulling Gs inside a driver’s suit for several hours.
“The older you get, the more you have to do to maintain a healthy weight,” Earnhardt said Friday before qualifying for Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Earnhardt kept having his race suit altered. He joked with his crew that the suit was shrinking when the suit’s contents were expanding. So in the sport’s brief offseason, Earnhardt lost 15 to 20 pounds.
He used what he called a 15-day “detox diet” – days when he subsisted mostly on prune juice, then carrot juice followed by strict rations of fish, chicken and steamed vegetables.
“Pretty tough,” Earnhardt recalled. “I almost didn’t make it.”
To hear Earnhardt throw around calorie counts is quite a change from the days when he recognized two food groups: pizza and chicken wings. You might recall his race team was once sponsored by Budweiser; he was as enthusiastic a consumer as he was an endorser.
This shift to a healthier lifestyle fits a guy who has clearly matured of late, both in his driving style and in life. He seems less prone to the edgy frustration that once gripped him after bad finishes. He can calmly dissect why things went well or poorly, as in when he described securing second place in the Daytona 500, but not maximizing his chances of overtaking winner Jimmie Johnson.
“I should have went earlier – gotten to second earlier – but I was worried about getting freight-trained like so many others,” Earnhardt said of the bunch-up of cars that restrictor-plate racing entails.
Earnhardt is in a good place right now; not raging quite so much, but also willing to share his opinions freely.
Asked about the ghastly wreck at the end of Daytona’s Nationwide race – it sent a tire and other debris into the stands, injuring dozens of fans – he said this must drive NASCAR to “seek the solutions that will always make this sport safer.”
Then he was asked about NASCAR’s decision to indefinitely suspend Nationwide driver Jeremy Clements for a racially-insensitive remark. Earnhardt had a big problem with Clement’s behavior.
“It’s really unfortunate that he chose to make that decision at that time, to use that language. I don’t like it and there’s no room for that in my life,” Earnhardt said. “One person’s mistake looks bad on a lot of people and looks bad on the sport.”
He’s become a senior statesman, a candid voice on most any issue. So he offered some perspective on Phoenix, the first non-restrictor plate race of the season, where seemingly there should be more passing than there was at Daytona.
The problem, Earnhardt described, is that the relatively recent repaving in Phoenix makes it a guessing game where the racing grooves are. Track pavement is like red wine; the longer it ages, the better the results.
“For us to be able to put on the best race we can put on, the older surfaces, the surfaces that have a few more years on them, tend to do better,” Earnhardt explained.
“The track being out here in the desert should help us – this place should age pretty quickly.”
It’s ironic Earnhardt aspired Friday to speed the aging of Phoenix’s pavement.
Maybe feed it some wings and a slice with extra cheese, and wash it down with a Bud?