New York City may not lie within the borders of NASCAR country, but the blocks between Times Square and Radio City Music Hall are a satellite state – at street level anyway. The T-shirts worn by out-of-towners taking in the sights testify to that allegiance. Still, when tourists catch sight of Dale Earnhardt Jr., their faces screw into knots of confusion before unraveling into loopy smiles: They're happy to see him, but surely the two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and good ol' boy face of stock car racing ought to be bouncing along some rutted rural road in his '48 Chevy Pickup. Earnhardt Jr. thinks so anyway. He would rather stay home in North Carolina, but, after 17 years on the road as a racer, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has developed a strategy to make spending roughly 250 days a year on the road easier: Keep it simple.
Ever the race car driver, Earnhardt Jr. has streamlined his packing regime to such an extent that he now only brings multifunctional clothes with him when he travels. As Earnhardt's girlfriend, Amy Reimann, quickly points out, "multifunctional" is a euphemism for black. Much to the delight of the security guards downstairs – who still ask him for ID – he arrives at the Midtown Manhattan offices of 'Men's Journal' post photoshoot (see "View More Photos," above) in his firesuit, but he quickly ducks into a bathroom and emerges in a black T-shirt, black jeans, and black boots.
"[New York] is the only place I bring a sports coat," says Earnhardt, who searches around for the label before announcing he's just thrown on a Zegna. Reimann bought the jacket. It's gray – not his department. "Bring the packing down," he advises. "Nobody wants to be that guy. . . ."
The one thing men have to bring, Earnhardt Jr. is quick to point out, is a belt. He urges men to remember their belts because not remembering them means buying more. He owns a lot – too many, often purchased on the road – because it’s the one thing he repeatedly forgets to pack. He may like to keep it simple, but Earnhardt Jr. is not the sort of guy who walks around without a belt. His ginger beard, unsalted by gray hairs despite all those crashes and near misses, is just this side of fastidious. He's a well-groomed traveler.
"I'd like to come back [to New York] and just stay for no reason," Earnhardt says as he looks out the office windows onto a city he hasn't visited in three years. "That'd be nice." He seems to linger on the thought, giving himself a moment to imagine living a less harried life he hasn't had the chance to pursue.
For a man best known for going from point A to point A via point A incredibly fast, Earnhardt Jr. values the opportunity to dawdle. "When you're at home, everything's a lot slower – so much slower," says Earnhardt Jr., who lives just north of Charlotte in the small town of Mooresville, where the population is roughly a twentieth as dense as in Manhattan and a lot less concerned with conference calls. His less-is-more approach to travel allows him to mosey Mooresville-style from the 'Today Show' to 'Men's Journal' to Fox without worrying about forgetting anything. He has a simple duffle bag. That's it.
The one thing he's forced to carry is the burden of expectation. He's Indy bound for the Brickyard 400, where he'll drive the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet this Sunday, July 28 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), in one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series's crown jewel events. He says he thinks he's "got a good chance at this one" because his crew chief likes the look of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year and pundits are liking his chances. Earnhardt Jr. has performed well at the 400 in the past – leading 61 laps and winning $2,279,961 in 13 starts – and is expected by both commentators and himself to be a contender. He wants to hoist the trophy, grab his small bag, and go home.