Dale Earnhardt Jr. will work his first Kentucky Derby on Saturday as part of his expanding role with NBC Sports. The retired NASCAR superstar is also slated to cover his first Indianapolis 500 later this month.
Earnhardt will work alongside reporter Rutledge Wood at Churchill Downs as the duo roams the infield, Millionaires Row and interacts with fans in attendance. NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver retired after the 2017 season and made his debut as an NBC Sports analyst last season.
The network has previously had Earnhardt report from the Super Bowl and last year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted — NBC owns the rights to many great sporting events, and they are really good at finding opportunities to cross-pollinate,” Earnhardt told The Associated Press. “They don’t do it just to do it. It’s got to make sense. Ultimately it’s a great thing for our NASCAR on NBC coverage.”
In his debut in the NASCAR booth, Earnhardt was an instant hit because of his enthusiasm and practical knowledge of the sport. But transitioning to other events has been trickier for the two-time Daytona 500 winner because his entire life has revolved around NASCAR. Earnhardt is a rabid NFL fan, but is learning other sports with each new opportunity.
“Whether it be the Kentucky Derby or Indy 500 or Olympics, I’m a guest in their world. I want to know about them, respect them, and help our broadcast team tell their stories,” Earnhardt said. “When I went to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, it was my first year with NBC Sports and we hadn’t even begun the NASCAR on NBC part of the broadcast schedule, so I was nervous.
“The energy and the atmosphere really helped me. I realized quickly that I needed to soak it in, relax, and do a good job for my team. Even though this will be my first Kentucky Derby, I’m hoping a year under my belt with NBC Sports will help me.”
As for the Kentucky Derby, well, Earnhardt has been doing his homework. His wife is from Kentucky and has been a strong tutor, but he said he will stick to what he knows during Saturday’s telecast.
“I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not,” he said. “I’m there for the first time, so that’s how I will be used — as a Kentucky Derby rookie, taking in the sights and sounds from Churchill Downs and talking to the fans there. At the end of the day it’s a race, and I love racing.”