Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2012 has been a story of triumph and turbulence. Entering Sunday's 35th of 36 races at Phoenix, he reflects on the maturation of a drama-filled season. November 9. 2012 - KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Standing in a hooded blue sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have passed for a student Thursday at Piper High School.
That is if he hadn't been holding the rapt attention of 500 teenagers in the gymnasium like a dashing quarterback at a pep rally. Sprinkling self-effacing humor into his folksy diction, Earnhardt faced probing questions for nearly 30 minutes.
How do you unwind from going 150 mph? ("I watch the late NFL game.") Do you really like Wrangler jeans? ("Yeah, they don't wear too bad.") What's your most embarrassing moment?
"Using the bathroom in the (race)car," he said, drawing guffaws from the crowd. "You just go. There ain't nothing else you can do. I had to go up to (a crewmember) after the race, and say, 'Look man, when you wash it out there, don't stick your head in there.'"
It might not have been a Toastmasters moment, but it was telling in showing how a once-shy star has gotten comfortable with being himself this season, whether it's dining in public or playing in a recreational softball league.
"I was just really nervous about what people's perceptions would be, so I held a lot of stuff in and just kept a lot of stuff private for a long time," Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports. "I got to a certain age where I guess I'm wanting to live a little more and be more outgoing and put myself out there in situations that are outside my comfort zone.
"I was living like this shielded, protected life for all these years and not seeing much of what was going on out there."
It's been a year of triumph and turbulence for NASCAR's most popular driver, who was sidelined for two races last month by a concussion, but his overarching theme seems one of newfound candor and public maturation often in the face of adversity.
He opened his replica Western town to the media for the first time. He kissed his current girlfriend, Amy Reimann, in victory lane after ending a four-year winless drought. He bared his emotions about his late father in a confessional morning feature on national TV.
He went into detail on the family feud that enveloped his Nationwide Series team, leading to the departure of his uncle, Tony Eury, and cousin, Tony Eury Jr.
The introverted star has crawled out of his shell far enough even to dabble in public speaking. Thursday's appearance was the last of five organized by his sponsor, National Guard, at high schools around the country.
"This is definitely out of my element," he said. "If it were up to me, I wouldn't have OK'd this last year. I'd be like, 'Are you crazy? I ain't talking to all them kids.'
"I don't feel like I'm good at it, so I'm not sure I'm comfortable completely, so it may be something I need (to) practice. If I just keep doing it and keep showing up — and I know we're going to do a lot of these next year — I think it'll be easier."
Earnhardt, who turned 38 last month, traces his outgoing streak to gregarious crew chief Steve Letarte, who took over his team last season and has led the No. 88 Chevrolet to consecutive appearances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Besides instilling a more regimented schedule at the track, Letarte also has spent a lot of time with the driver after hours, and his infectious personality took root.
"He just rubbed off on me," Earnhardt said. "This guy is really positive all the time, got a great attitude. When you're around people like that, you tend to act that way. And running better certainly helped. You don't run good, you don't want to go out in public. You're embarrassed."
The lifelong North Carolina resident hasn't shied from putting himself in awkward situations in his hometown of Mooresville this year, joining a city softball league "knowing I can't play a lick."
It's been part of a conscious effort to be more active by Earnhardt, a homebody whose technophile lifestyle included playing video games for hours on end.
"I knew there would be some moments that it wouldn't be the funnest thing in the world, but I wanted to experience things that I haven't before," he said. "People always are like, 'Man, you can't go anywhere.' And that's not true! What happens is you think you can't, and you don't. I'm just like, 'I'm going to go out to dinner with me, Amy and Steve to wherever.' I don't care who's there or who sees me.
"If someone wants an autograph or to boo me, I'm not worried about that anymore."
There have been no awkward encounters as Earnhardt has built a list of favorite out-of-town restaurants in his iPhone. From Louie's Prime Steak House near Pocono Raceway, JP's on the Wharf near Dover International Speedway or Brixx Pizzeria near the Sonoma road course, it's been an eye-opening culinary delight for a foodie who sequestered himself in the motor home lot during his first 10 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.
"I used to never do that," he said. "I cooked in the bus every night. I never left the track for 10 years probably unless it was to do an appearance. And there are so many great restaurants, one-of-a-kind places.
"I'm just now getting to do that. And it was self-imposed. I'm not blaming nobody. I'm glad to be maturing." Talking concussions
He remains a "kid at heart", though, as evidenced by his comfort while interacting with more than 100 students during a meet-and-greet session before the gym Q&A with the full student body at Piper High School, which had a visit last year from alum Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family.
"Our kids were really excited about that, but I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the next level," principal Tim Conrad said. "Anytime we can bring someone in who is a positive role model that's a national/worldwide figurehead is very flattering, and our kids are very receptive."
While autographing an array of diecast cars, smartphones, Coke bottles, billfolds and a mini-replica of the Wilson volleyball from Cast Away (one of his favorite movies), Earnhardt was at ease with a parade of kids Thursday who were at least 20 years his junior but still connected with him.
Carley Zwart, 17, whipped out her cellphone to show the Hendrick Motorsports driver a photo of a boar she'd bagged while bow-hunting .("My dad and I watch hunting shows and saw him on there," she said. "I'm not the biggest watcher of NASCAR, but he's my guy.")
"I don't feel that far removed from this generation," Earnhardt said. "I know it's quite a few years, and it's cool to see them have any interest whatsoever in what I'm doing. I feel like I was just in high school 10 years ago. I'm growing old faster than I can get there."
His recent concussion also was a touchpoint for the younger set, particularly Jake Dougherty. The 16-year-old sustained a concussion in a JV football game and asked Earnhardt about his recovery.
"To see somebody so important going through the same thing meant a lot," Dougherty said. "It showed how important it was to take it seriously."
Earnhardt said: "I've heard that a lot. I just really hate that it happened because I didn't want to be the poster boy or spokesperson for that.
"But it's something that I learned a lot from. There was a lot of positives to the experience in that sort of context talking to this kid here. It's fun to meet somebody who's been through it, because you feel singled out when it happens to you."
Earnhardt reveled in several questions about his days at Mooresville High School, ranging from if he'd attended prom ("racing was way more important") or played sports (soccer, on a team that made the state playoffs). His fondest memory? "Going to football games and just acting foolish and starting fights, or watching someone start one."
"I know they don't want me to say that, but it slips out, and that's what we did," he said. "I look back on it and now and think it's ridiculous."
A 'C' student who was "too embarrassed to put an offer in" at a university, Earnhardt said he was uneasy being a role model at a high school that ranked tops in the Kansas City metro area in reading and math. But he still delivered several strong messages encouraging students to stay away from drugs and the wrong crowd, preaching "you've got dreams, and you don't want to derail them."
"I remember as a kid if someone came in the auditorium and said, 'Try harder, don't do dumb stuff, skip school, do drugs,' I wouldn't listen," he said. "I know it's a pretty tall order to break through to anybody. But you have to try. So I try."