As if there wasn't already ample evidence piling up that this year may very well be different for Dale Earnhardt Jr., there was last Saturday's Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Oh, part of what transpired was a rerun of similar Earnhardt implosions in recent years. But what happened in the immediate aftermath of a costly Earnhardt mistake getting onto pit road late in the race was different indeed.
After running over the cone that signified the entrance to pit road, Earnhardt knew what was coming next. He said he fully expected and understood NASCAR's pass-through penalty, which put him a lap down with only 38 laps remaining in the scheduled 367-lap race (which ended up going 370 because of a green-white-checkered finish).
"I knew when I touched the cone that you're not supposed to touch the cone. I knew what was getting ready to happen to me," Earnhardt said. "I was upset about it -- because we had worked so hard to get to where we were. I hated to give it up."
He also hated what he had just done to his No. 88 team. After staring a possible top-five finish down, he eventually had to settle for 14th.
So Earnhardt told his team on the radio that he wanted to meet with them immediately after the race, to accept full responsibility for the error before they all headed to Dover for this weekend's next Sprint Cup race.
"I thought it was a good thing to do, especially immediately after the event like that, to clear the air," Earnhardt said. "That way, nobody goes home wondering what everyone else is thinking. They know how I feel and I know how they feel. It was just a good way to put it behind us as quick as we could.
"One good thing we have going for us right now is that we do have good speed, and we're finding more and more speed each and every week. We're running competitively. We've been a top-10 race car at every race we've showed up to. I'm really, really proud of that and I want to keep that momentum going. So the sooner we can put the mistake that I made Saturday behind us, the better."
It was an act of maturity that did not go unnoticed by his boss at Hendrick Motorsports, team owner Rick Hendrick.
"He appreciates what he's got, and he loves the team. He thought [crew chief] Stevie [Letarte] didn't make the right call at Richmond, and it cost 'em eight or nine spots -- and he said something about it. So [at Darlington] it was just him saying, 'If I make a mistake, I'm going to raise my hand.' I think it was a smart thing to do," Hendrick said.
Earnhardt said Letarte and the rest of the team was receptive to his apology.
"[They told me] not to worry about it, that they were fine, that they feel the same way I do -- that they feel focused and excited and energized," Earnhardt said. "We hold team meetings every day in the hauler and before the race, and Steve does all the talking and I really don't talk that much. So I felt like it was important that I needed to be vocal right there, right then when I made that mistake. I just wanted to tell the guys that my focus was strong ... that I was just trying to get a little bit too much, and that I will try to minimize my mistakes moving forward. I told them to just keep loading up great race cars and taking them to the race track, and we'll be fine."
Hendrick said he is pleased with how Earnhardt's team has performed this season, the first in which the driver has been paired with Letarte. Heading into Dover, Earnhardt sits fourth in the point standings despite having not won a race since June of 2008 at Michigan -- 104 races ago.
"He loves that team," Hendrick said. "You go in the garage now, and he's in that hauler. All of the drivers stay in their buses these days. You walk through the garage any more and you don't see the drivers until it's time to practice. Well, he's in the hauler with the guys -- and he's talking about the car. He's giving input on what he thinks the car needs.
"It's just that chemistry. Stevie will not let you be down when you're around him. He's just perfect for Dale, and they like each other. And Dale, I think, has confidence that he has a team behind him that believes in him. The chemistry is there, and he's got something he wants to prove. So I'm really excited for him -- and he's the happiest I've ever seen him. He's happy and he's motivated right now."
He also obviously wanted to make it clear to his teammates that one bad mistake at Darlington is not going to change that. Hendrick said he took that as a positive. While the No. 88 team hasn't had the results he or Earnhardt envisioned when Earnhardt first signed on with Hendrick Motorsports prior to the 2008 season, Hendrick said he thinks he sees them coming.
"I think with Dale, it takes time. He's got to do it on his timetable," Hendrick said. "He's a unique guy -- but he cares more about people than most people realize. He cares about what the other drivers think about him, and the fans, and his crew."