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Dale Earnhardt Jr. was insecure. He was insecure about how his breath or clothes smelled and he worried around people. When people hopped into his car for a ride, he wondered if they could sense what many around the NASCAR world called an “open secret.”
“I thought I was doing a better job of hiding it,” Earnhardt Jr. jokingly told Ladders recently. “They all kind of knew.”
Earnhardt Jr. was a smoker for 15 years. He picked up the habit in his early 20s and tried quitting multiple times until his wife, Amy (then his girlfriend) gave him an ultimatum after putting up with the smoking for a few months.
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It’s either cigarettes or me. Earnhardt Jr. chose the latter.
Secrets under the hood
The 44-year-old, who semi-retired after the 2017 NASCAR season, was controlled by cigarettes. It was the first thing he thought about after completing a race and he felt disconnected from life’s moments due to his addiction always being on his mind.
“I was a little nervous about telling my story but I know that can be someone else’s experience as well, he said. “If this can help someone quit, then they can have that epiphany.”
While he hid his smoking habit well from fans, Earnhardt Jr., who teamed up with Nicorette to help promote its new coated ice mint lozenge, recalled to Ladders an embarrassing cigarette-related moment he had involving his late father, Dale Earnhardt, right before the start of the 24 Hours at Daytona race in 2001. (His father died in a wreck during the Daytona 500 later that month.)
“The biggest one — it’s funny, but it was awful. I hid cigarettes from my dad all my life. I worked really hard at it. He knew I smoked but I never wanted him to have to see me with a cigarette or holding a pack of cigarettes. I worked real hard to never let him be exposed to that because I knew he was disappointed enough knowing that I did. He walked into my house a few times unannounced and saw ashtrays, so it’s like, ‘Oh dammit.’ But he never once saw me with a cigarette and I felt pretty good about that track record.
“One day, we were getting ready to run the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2001. They had this special hookup for the watering system to be able to drink water and it plugs into the front of your helmet. I was in my bus with a buddy of mine, [explicit] around and I had that helmet on. You could put a cigarette right through that hole. And I was like, ‘Check it out man! I wonder if I can smoke this cigarette in this helmet.’ My dad opens the door and I’m standing there with this helmet and a cigarette in it. He looked at me and slams the door, cussing… It was the one time in his life that he saw me acting like a complete [explicit] and I was so ashamed. He was so angry. It’s funny as hell today, but in that moment it was very disappointing.
“I knew I had broken his heart and disappointed the [explicit] out of him. That felt awful. That’s the worst of the worst. I had my driver’s suit on. We were getting ready to head over to driver introductions and he was like, ‘Where’s your [explicit] head at? Get in the game. You’re acting like a complete idiot and we’re getting ready to run a 24-hour race together. What are you thinking? Where’s your head?’ I’m like, ‘I’m sorry dad, we were just [explicit] around. We thought it would be funny.’ He did not see the humor and he was so mad.”
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