|Earnhardt has reason to smile|
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., went to Victory Lane for the third time this season at Pocono Raceway Sunday, and all is well in Earnhardt Nation.
The third-generation Kannapolis, NC driver now stands second in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points – trailing only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon – and if the 2014 Chase began today, Earnhardt would own the top seed. For legions of loyal fans, it looks like 2014 could finally be the year for Earnhardt to fulfill their expectations and grab the brass ring.
Ever since Earnhardt first decided to follow in his father’s cavernous footsteps, driving race cars on the short tracks of North and South Carolina, there have been expectations. Lofty expectations, unfair expectations that he should somehow manage to equal – or even surpass – the accomplishments of a man recognized by many as the greatest stock car racer who ever lived.
A pair of championships in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 1998 and 1999 shone the spotlight even brighter, and when Earnhardt the elder lost his life in a tragic crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the weight of a nation fell squarely on his son’s shoulders.
Earnhardt, Jr. bore that weight admirably, returning to The World Center of Racing and winning at the track that had taken his father’s life just five months before. NASCAR Nation celebrated that victory like few before or since, then raised their expectations even further. If Earnhardt could prevail in such a fairytale fashion, they reasoned, anything must be possible.
More wins will surely follow, they thought. Championships, as well. Even seven championships, just like his legendary father.
|Junior has matured|
Eventually, the weight of those expectations became too much for even an Earnhardt to bear. A messy split with stepmother Teresa hung much of the family’s dirty laundry out to dry, and left DEI’s colossal “Garage Mahal” an empty shell of its once bustling self.
Even a move to Hendrick Motorsports failed to make Earnhardt a big winner. The wins and championships failed to materialize, buried instead under an avalanche of questions about the talent, focus and desire of the man annually crowned NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
Earnhardt often confounded those closest to him, climbing from race cars and retreating to the privacy of his motor home, more interested in video games than NASCAR championships. Sure, he did his duty, facing the cameras and microphones and delivering sincere, well considered answers to the inevitable questions about his untapped potential. But only this season has NASCAR’s Chosen One finally seemed capable of climbing to the summit of the sport by winning the coveted Sprint Cup Series championship.
What has changed? How has Earnhardt finally made peace with his demons – both personal and professional – and learned to embrace the demands, expectations and pressure of contending for a NASCAR championship?
The answers are both numerous and simple.
After years of buying into the criticism of strangers and questioning his own ability, Earnhardt now says 2014 could be the best year or his life, on and off the race track.
|Earnhardt and Reimann: in sync.|
“Everything about life right now is great,” said Earnhardt to reporters Sunday, following a raucous Victory Lane celebration at Pocono Raceway. “I’ve got my professional life good, and the personal life’s doing good. I’ve learned and grown a lot in the last four or five years, working with this group. It’s been a big thing.”
After Sundays race, Earnhardt compared this 2014 season to his previous high-water mark; a 2004 campaign that saw him win six Cup Series races – including the Daytona 500 -- with a tightknit Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team that included his uncle, Tony Eury, Sr. and cousin, Tony Eury, Jr.
“I was really close to the guys on the 8 team (at DEI),” he said. “Obviously, a lot of those guys are family and I still have great relationships with them. But I think I’m smarter about my friendships now. When I was younger, it was more about `how can this help me?’
“I was not as concerned about helping them and being their friend as I was about them being my friend. I think I’m better at being a friend these days (and) I’ve never been as close to my team. The relationships me, Steve, Jason, Kevin and all the guys on the team have, I’ve never had relationships work this well.”
Earnhardt has won three times in 21 starts this season – as many victories as he managed in 2006 through 2013 combined – and seems to be a happier, more relaxed, more centered driver than ever before. He attributed that happiness to simple joys, listing, “Amy, the Redskins, my family (and) drinking a cold beer...” as prime motivators of his season to date.
|Junior and Letarte: zen-like|
Those are simple pleasures, indeed.
Simple pleasures for a simple man; albeit one entrenched in a complicated, high-octane profession where your best is often not enough.
Earnhardt’s relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte now borders on Zen-like, with little of the “You’re good, you’re talented, you can do it” cheerleading that highlighted their early time together. Earnhardt has bought into Letarte’s “work hard, trust completely, win often” philosophy, and has evolved – slowly but surely – into the kind of focused, professional driver that is capable of winning multiple races and championships.
Those close to Earnhardt say his longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann, has added a degree of stability to his personal life, as well, serving as a reliable anchor in an often-turbulent sea. “My personal life’s great,” admitted Earnhardt Sunday. “Me and Amy have got a great relationship and a good home life.”
And after years of underachievement, Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team has emerged as a leading candidate to claim the 2014 championship, with drivers Chase Elliott and Regan Smith ranking first and second in the title chase. As is often the case with the Earnhardts, JRM’s ascension came only after with a healthy share of heartache associated with the decision to purge the Eurys from the team, focusing instead on a partnership with Hendrick Motorsports that has paid tremendous dividends.
It hasn’t come easily, not a bit of it. But in the end, what’s a fairytale finish without a few trials and tribulations thrown in along the way?
Whether he wins the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship or not, Dale Junior finally seems to have found his center.