Earnhardt vows to battle through hard times to regain success in Cup Series
By Mark Aumann, NASCAR.COM
February 15, 2011 2:14 PM, EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr
. has one message for his detractors: He’s not a quitter.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if I didn’t feel like that I wanted to go win races and be successful,” Junior said during the NASCAR media tour stop at Hendrick Motorsports. “I wouldn’t put up with all the things that I put up with. And I enjoy driving race cars and I want to be around for a long time.
“Everybody expects me or Dale to wave some magic wand and he’s going to lead every lap and win every race.”
“Whether people think I’ll be here for a long time, I plan on being here. I’ve got nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. This is what I grew up to do. This is what I want to do. This is where I want to be.”
After suffering through two of the worst seasons of his career, don’t think for a moment Earnhardt doesn’t hear the whispers of those who think he’s washed up, who believe he’s lost the touch resulting in 15 wins before he turned 30 — and only three in the six years since.
For him, it’s not a matter of if. Rather, it’s just a matter of when.
“It’s unfortunate that we haven’t been successful over the last several years,” Junior said. “There was a period where we were successful. And that gives me a lot of hope and a lot of expectation to get back, to get there again.
“I know I can do it, so that’s what we’ll try to do this year. We made a lot of changes. We’re trying to fix it. We’re trying to get better. We’re making the effort. We just have to wait until we get to the track to see what the results are.”
Winning the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 is a small step in the right direction for Earnhardt, who now has Steve Letarte handling crew chief duties on the pit box in 2011. But it’s only the first of many needed to get the No. 88 Chevrolet back to some semblance of competitiveness.
The unfortunate result of being NASCAR’s most popular driver is having to deal with overwhelming expectations, and the intense scrutiny that follows when those expectations aren’t realized. Team owner Rick Hendrick
was well aware of that when he hired Earnhardt to drive for him at the beginning of the 2008 season.
“Everybody expects me or Dale to wave some magic wand and he’s going to lead every lap and win every race,” Hendrick said. “Jeff Gordon
didn’t win a race last year. Carl Edwards
had a winless streak. There’s so many guys who have streaks, then all of a sudden, they hit it and they come back. He’s just under the microscope every minute.”
And that focus only gets more magnified at Daytona, where Junior’s father was killed 10 years ago. Earnhardt’s demeanor never wavered as he calmly answered question after question about the events of that day and how it impacted his life. Hendrick, who lost his son and several other family members and friends in a plane crash at Martinsville, is amazed by Junior’s resilience.
“I don’t know how [he can] go to Daytona every year and he loves to race there,” Hendrick said. “So how he handles that, I don’t know. Everybody does it their own way.
“I think he’s real excited. He doesn’t show as much enthusiasm as I do sometimes. But he’s excited about this year and he knows that a lot of the things, the questions, we’ve addressed. So we look forward to it.”
Hendrick has 10 NASCAR Cup championship trophies in his possession, including Jimmie Johnson
‘s five consecutive titles. But Junior’s continuing struggles left him perplexed and searching for alternatives.
“Have we done what I thought we’d do? No, I’m not satisfied at all,” Hendrick said. “Last year was not good anywhere. So I’ve gotten used to having to answer the question, but the pressure’s there even if you didn’t ask me the question. I’m too competitive to be out there and not have my cars up front and all running well.”
Complacency is one thing Hendrick won’t tolerate, and that was the word he used to describe his operation in 2010. It’s also the main reason why he went to the drastic measure of shuffling crew chiefs on three of his four Cup teams.
“We needed to shake it up and have a real reason to come back with some enthusiasm and some self-inflicted pressure,” Hendrick said. “Because when you just rotate the seats and everything else stays the same, then it fires up everybody because it puts everybody on point.
“We were behind in lots of areas so we had to catch up. I could see toward the end of the year that we were gaining in some areas where we were behind. All I can tell you is I’m determined to try make each team as good as they can be, and I feel real good about this.
“Can I guarantee you that I’ll have four cars in the Chase? I guarantee that if we don’t, I’ll keep working on it.”
Earnhardt is a history buff. And he understands the best way to understand history is to learn from it. He’s taking that to heart this season.
“We’re working hard to fix our problems,” Junior said. “We understand that we haven’t run well. I’ve owned up to all my issues of the past and my performance in the past.”
During the offseason, Junior stayed near friends and family. He went deer hunting with Martin Truex Jr
., attended the wedding of his sister Kelley and kept in touch with his online racing buddies.
And if that next win comes on Sunday at Daytona, what will it be like?
“It’s hard for me to explain to people what winning feels like,” Junior said. “People ask me about winning my first race and things like that. I can’t explain it. What’s the greatest feeling you’ve ever had in your life? That’s it.
“I don’t really think about, daydream about, going to Daytona and this is how it’s going to happen. But wherever we get the next win is going to be good, regardless of whether it’s Daytona or anywhere else. The next time we win a race is going to be great for a lot of people. And I’ll be very happy.”