For the next three weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will dominate much of the NASCAR conversation again – although not in the way he would like to. His famous father died 10 years ago, at the 2001 Daytona 500, which means that he constantly faces questions about that horrible day and its aftermath.
For the rest of the 2011 season, though, it will be up to Earnhardt to stay relevant.
NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past eight years was irrelevant (again) for most of the 2010 season, finishing 21st in the points standings despite driving for the most successful organization in the business. Now he has a new crew chief (again), as well as a 93-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup series.
The last few years have beaten Earnhardt up a little. You can hear this in his voice, which is more of a monotone than it used to be. He doesn’t smile as much as he used to.
“I see these videos of me five years ago,” Earnhardt said this week, “and there’s definitely a more jubilant, cheerier guy. I don’t know if that’s just because of getting older [Earnhardt is 36] or because I’ve been doing this so long. Just the grind. The failures in the past several years definitely have a lot to do with it.”
Understand that Earnhardt doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him. He is very grateful for the life he leads and said he’s a lot better off in his mid-30s than he would have expected.
But Earnhardt is both a more introverted and a more complicated man than you think. And not winning while driving for Hendrick Motorsports? That stings him.
There’s an incorrect rap on Earnhardt that he doesn’t care about his results, that he just wants to be a celebrity. He’s not a Kardashian. He’s a driver.
He’s not his father, either, and he never will be. He didn’t choose the name that has proven such a blessing and such a hardship. Dale Earnhardt may have been the best ever, and while Dale Jr. got some of those instincts, the plain fact is that he’s just not the driver his father was.
He is OK with that, though. He loved his dad. His memories of his father veer more toward humor than you might think, given that Dale Sr. was nicknamed the “Intimidator.”
Earnhardt told a story during the NASCAR media tour this week about how his father once wanted to take him out to eat at a nice steak restaurant the night before a race.
Instead, Dale Jr. bought a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly. He ate sandwiches in his hotel room with a friend while they watched “Batman” reruns.
When his father barged into from the room next door, yelling, “You’ve got 15 minutes to get ready to go eat,” he found the PB&J. He thought it was a lazy move and got upset. Dale Jr. thought going out to eat a steak and potato felt like a chore he could skip.
The two Earnhardts laughed hard about it later.
Those are the kinds of memories Dale Jr. treasures, the ones he likes to dwell on far more than his father’s last-lap crash and subsequent death 10 years ago at NASCAR’s biggest race.
Earnhardt said his memories of that day are still “pretty fresh, not blurry like in the movies.” You get the sense he wishes the memories weren’t quite as sharp.
“After that happened,” Earnhardt said, “I didn’t want to see another race track or another race car ever again.”
That gradually changed. “We went to Rockingham [the next week], and I went because I felt a responsibility to go,” Earnhardt said. “But I didn’t want to be there [and quickly crashed out of the race]. But after about a week, I got to thinking, ‘What else am I going to do?’ My dad gave me this opportunity, and I would be a fool to squander it.' "
So he has driven a race car and sometimes driven it very well, especially in restrictor-plate races like those at Daytona. He has won 18 times at the Cup level, although he has zero overall championships compared with his father’s seven.
His boss, car owner Rick Hendrick, swears this year will be better. Of course, Hendrick thought 2009 would be better, too.
“Everybody just expects me or Dale to wave some magic wand and he’s going to lead every lap and win every race,” Hendrick said.
But there have been no magic wands. Hendrick still believes in his driver, but shares his frustration.
“He can win,” Hendrick said. “If we get him equal, he can win every restrictor-plate race. He’s really good on mile-and-a-half tracks. He’s really good on flat tracks. And the in-betweens, we just need to get better. We just have got to give him good stuff – and he’s got to believe he’s getting it.”
This year Earnhardt gets Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief, Steve Letarte. As usual, Earnhardt will be under the microscope.
“If you’re going to be the most popular driver,” Hendrick said, “that ‘most popular’ [title] comes with baggage….. So you do the best you can and you have to deal with it.”
As part of being the most-recognized driver, Earnhardt is routinely asked to weigh in on NASCAR issues. He’s fine with the new points system, but believes the Cup races in general are miles too long (especially those in Pocono). He also thinks that the actual NASCAR season won’t ever be shortened because of the money involved.
“It’s almost as if each race is a limb you can’t amputate,” Earnhardt said.
He has become a voice of reason in the NASCAR garage, although he never will have the political might of his father – in large part because he doesn’t want it.
When I asked him about using the word “failure” to describe his past several seasons, Earnhardt said: “I would characterize the seasons as failure. But I myself don’t feel like a failure. I’m happy with myself, with what I’ve done…. I have a lot to be grateful for.
"I have a great life. I’m just a little introverted.”
Earnhardt said he will honor his father quietly, in his own way, before the 2011 Daytona 500 on Feb. 20th. And then he will do what he most wants to do.
“My anticipation to get to the race track is what’s killing me,” Earnhardt said. “I just want to get to the race track, start running laps, throw a green flag, get to the end and see where I’m at.”
And what does he most want to be?
Relevant – because of where his car finishes, not because of what his last name is.