DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaned toward the track in the broadcast booth and hollered like a NASCAR fan at home over a gripping final lap in his debut race.
Once Kyle Larson tried to swipe the lead from Kyle Busch with a daring pass at Chicagoland, Earnhardt could not harness his enthusiasm.
Earnhardt smiled and clapped his hands at the move and — in a flash — the retired NASCAR star had a signature call.
“I was really surprised that that took off like it did,” Earnhardt said at Daytona International Speedway. “I got done with the race, went to the car, drove to the airport. By the time I got to the airport, everybody was texting me, saying it over and over, and I’m hearing it everywhere all week.”
Sure enough, race fans on social media parodied the call and “slide job” was used as a voice over for other memorable moments in sports. At Daytona, fans cried out “slide job” and they clamored on Twitter for a business to produce T-shirts with Earnhardt’s image and the quote.
Earnhardt could only laugh at the hoopla his excited cries created in a sport desperate for any kind of feel-good buzz. It was exactly what NBC Sports counted on when it hired the outspoken and folksy Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, to work the booth this year.
Take a walk around Daytona and it’s clear the biggest star in the sagging sport is still Earnhardt — who retired at the end of last season on the heels of his 15th straight most popular driver award.
The Daytona fan zone has a billboard-sized ad promoting itself as “The World Center of Racing” on the same wall as a close-up image of Earnhardt wearing a headset with the caption, “Same Dale. New View.”
Earnhardt’s presence looms large in a sport that has failed to create any new stars anywhere nearly as popular as the driver who inspired “Junior Nation.” He hosted a Q&A with drivers such as Austin Dillon and Denny Hamlin in the fan zone before Friday night’s qualifying runs.
“He’s like the John Madden of racing,” NBC analyst and former crew chief, Steve Letarte, said.
Hold the turducken.
It was only one race and even Earnhardt conceded the call wasn’t quite ready to join the pantheon of “Holy Cow!” and “Whoa, Nelly!” in enduring catchphrases in broadcast history.
“I don’t know that that’s a catchphrase because I don’t know that you can just work it in any time,” Earnhardt said. “That was just a natural reaction to what I was seeing. That’s what my bosses asked me to do, say what I was thinking.”
Earnhardt is a bit of a NASCAR everyman, and called the action in much the same way a couple of buddies might see it over a couple of beers at a bar.
But fresh off the track, Earnhardt had the experience necessary to describe first-person action for fans at home.
“Down the front straightaway, there’s another bump coming into turn 1,” Earnhardt said, looking at the view of an in-car camera. “You feel it right THERE (as the car jiggled). It’s like driving off a set of stairs. It’s not a dip. It’s really a ledge.”
Sam Flood, the NBC Sports executive who hired Earnhardt, said his only advice for the former driver was to simply be himself. Earnhardt had some broadcast experience as the host of his own podcast and found the tip easy to follow.
“I’m not having to trim as much rough edges as I thought I would,” Earnhardt said.
There was a bit of a Junior bump on the ratings — the Chicagoland race was up 14 percent from last season. Yes, there was the caveat that last year’s race was in September and went up against the NFL. But certainly there were a few disconnected fans who tuned in — thanks in part to a massive promotional push that featured Earnhardt at the expense of the drivers — just to hear an unfiltered Earnhardt have fun in the booth.
“I’m just trying to find my lane, man,” he said.
Letarte, who worked as Earnhardt’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, said his buddy would be a natural in the booth.
“He’s a guy that not only was the most popular driver, not only was a very successful race car driver, but he’s a huge historian,” Letarte said. “He understands every decade, which I think helps him because he can relate to all the fans — from the 14-year-old to the grandfather — which I think makes him unique.”
Earnhardt earned plaudits for his debut and left the track feeling every bit a winner as he did 26 times in his Cup career. But the broadcast rookie just couldn’t fire up the DVR to critique his performance.
“I’m afraid I won’t like it,” he said. “If I did all right, I’m going to keep doing that.”
He’s open to constructive criticism — his nearly 2.5 million Twitter followers will surely blow up his notifications if they hear something they don’t like — but Earnhardt knows the best thing he can do in the booth is keep it simple.
“It’s not brain surgery,” Letarte said. “It’s TV.”
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