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Where He's Going Is Not Where He's Been
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first (and most high-profile) race of the 2014 season on Sunday, and joined elite company in becoming a multiple-time winner of the Daytona 500. The win puts him on top of the NASCAR world, at least for a week, and he doesn't look ready to budge from his new found heights.
Aside from his 11-year stranglehold on the title of "Most Popular Driver," Dale Jr. has rarely stood taller than the rest of the NASCAR field. His journey to this position has been one that's woven through small peaks and deep valleys, but finally appears to have ascended toward a mountain's summit.
Entering 2014, Junior had won just two races since the end of the 2006 season, when he finished fifth in the standings - and both of them were at Michigan International Speedway.
From 2007-10, he finished no better than 12th in the standings, and that included season finishes of 21st and 25th in the final standings. To put that in perspective, Danica Patrick finished 27th last year as a rookie and her performance came under a lot of fire.
Things began to turn in 2011, as Junior vaulted himself back into the Chase and finished seventh. In 2012, he snapped a 143-race winless streak and even spent time as the points leader before a concussion suffered in a wreck at Talladega cost him two races and dashed any title aspirations.
Last year, Earnhardt Jr. put together his most consistent season from a standpoint of top-10s. He registered a career-high 22 of them, but couldn't find victory lane. He finished fifth in points, his highest finish since 2006.
He entered this season with the news that it would be the final one with his crew chief, Maine native Steve Letarte. While that storm cloud on the horizon might have troubled a younger Dale Jr., it hasn't seemed to affect the experienced veteran.
During the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour, he visibly seemed as comfortable and at peace with his stature as the driver with the most pressure to succeed. He even joked about the changes to the NASCAR Chase, saying "I wasn't really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening, and I had to get used to it. But, now, let's change it all."
There was a time that change might have been more bothersome to NASCAR's "Most Popular Driver," but not anymore. At age 39, he just began his 15th full season in the Sprint Cup Series. After Daytona, he's now run 144,995 laps and registered 205 top-10s in 506 career starts.
The problem with his popularity is that it wasn't something that came about organically for Junior. His support was not developed by a prolonged success on the track, but the need to succeed beyond his performance has long been placed on him.
He was just beginning his second full season when his dad was tragically killed during the 2001 Daytona 500. Over the course of his career, Dale Earnhardt Sr. raced in parts of at least 27 seasons, amassing 76 race wins in 676 starts, while winning a record-tying seven Cup championships. When he was wrenched away so suddenly, his fan base needed somewhere to land and they gravitated toward the young driver with his namesake.
At the time, young Junior (age 25) had two race wins and seven top-10s in a mere 40 Cup starts. As unfair as it might seem, the weight and success of Earnhardt Nation fell on his shoulders. Fans put the responsibility on him to continue the Earnhardt Legacy. But, there was only one Intimidator and Junior would never be his father.
Thirteen years later, it's clear that Dale Jr. has accepted that simple fact. He won't win 76 races or seven championships - and he doesn't have to. Few drivers in the history of the sport will accomplish such feats, and there's no shame in coming up a little short of such legendary numbers.
As he's become comfortable with his own identity, Junior has become comfortable racing with his own style. It was clear last year when he finished tied for second in top-10s that he'd found a consistency that had been lacking in previous years.
Winning at all costs might have worked for The Intimidator, but in the case of Earnhardt Jr., that wasn't the case. Especially in today's NASCAR environment that features noticeable parity in equipment and a deep talent pool of drivers, Junior needed to learn to make the most of the car with which he was provided on any given day. He also needed faith that with consistency, the wins would eventually follow.
On Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s perseverance paid off its debt. Not only did he win the unexpected primetime event under the lights, but he led the most laps. Like any strong driver/crew chief tandem, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte worked to produce the best car on the track over the latter part of the race.
Even when he inadvertently got a large piece of debris stuck on his grille during the final caution, Dale Jr. was unaffected by the possibility that his engine might overheat. He pulled away on the last green flag and left little doubt over the final two laps that he would be the winner of the 56th "Great American Race."
Afterward, he was hanging out of his car and saluting fans before heading to victory lane to hug every hard working member of his crew. He didn't look like someone thankful to have held up the family name, or someone relieved to have found victory lane for the first time in a year and a half. He just looked like someone exuberant and ready to get after it all in 2014.
So, where does he go from here?
Other than on to Twitter, where @DaleJr has started showing a more personal side of his existence with a series of smiling selfies ...
It's certainly not backwards (even if that's the direction he was driving in his victory lap). Earnhardt Jr. appears to be someone with poise and ability to contend for a championship. Despite the optimism of Junior Nation over the years, that likelihood has been rare for Junior over his career.
It's too early to start crowning him as the champion. But the new NASCAR Chase format all but guarantees he'll at least be one of the 16 contenders come September. At which point, if he keeps racing with the enthusiasm and ability that he showed in Daytona on Sunday, perhaps then it might be time to see if the crown fits.