The retired NASCAR superstar tells PEOPLE that after 15 years as a smoker, he finally kicked the habit

By Steve Helling
May 22, 2019 08:06 PM
Nicorette Gum

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had his share of health issues over the years: throughout his NASCAR career, he suffered 20 to 25 concussions over the years.

But the retired racing superstar tells PEOPLE that he often made other choices that negatively affected his health, including a years-long smoking habit that he struggled to kick for years.

“Like everyone, there were lots of stops and starts,” Earnhardt Jr., 44, says. “Trying to quit, starting up again, trying to quit again. It was a vicious cycle.”

Earnhardt Jr. admits that he grew up in an environment where tobacco use was rampant. “I first started smoking when I was about 18 years old and smoked for the next 15 years,” he says. “I just kind of picked up the habit hanging out with friends. This girl I was seeing smoked.”

The only person who abstained was his late father, NASCAR champ Dale Earnhardt Sr. “It just wasn’t his thing,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “He always wanted me to quit.”

“I didn’t love how it tasted,” he continues. “Initially, smoking was just something I did when I hung out with my friends. And then I’d smoke while playing video games or driving down the road. And before I knew it, I was going through a pack-and-a-half a day. I was full-blown smoker.”

“I started coughing more, getting sore throats,” he says. “I was sick more frequently than people who didn’t smoke. And I knew what it was doing to my long-term health, but I just couldn’t kick the habit. I had a habit that was killing me.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Nicorette Gum

After “at least four or five” times trying to quit, Earnhardt Jr. was in despair. He had just started to date his now-wife Amy.

“She asked me if I was ever going to quit,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘I’m not sure that I can.’ And she said, ‘Well, that may be a dealbreaker. I don’t think I want to date a smoker.’ And that was the motivation that I needed. And I kicked the habit.”

Earnhardt Jr., who retired from his NASCAR career in 2018, recently launched a video campaign to promote Nicorette Coated Ice Mint Lozenges, a product designed to help smokers quit.

“I’ve been there,” he says. “Trying so hard to quit, trying everything on the market. It just seemed like the right fit.”

As a dad to 1-year-old daughter, Isla Rose, Earnhardt Jr. admits that he never wants to smoke again.

From left: Amy Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at their home in North Carolina
Courtesy Nationwide

“I’ll be setting an example for her,” he says. “And what type of example is it if I’m smoking? It’s not the dad I want to be.”

“I never have the cravings again,” he says. “I’m so, so grateful that I’m a non-smoker now. When I was young, I didn’t care. I was having fun. I convinced myself that it wouldn’t affect me. Now I’m a dad, and I know how important it is. I’m so grateful that I’m not sitting here as a new dad trying to quit. I’m living a good life now.”