RICHMOND, Va._ The Junior Nation finally has some relief. After years of struggles, disappointments and winless seasons, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third in points, 19 marks out of the lead and heading to a track he has three wins on. The NASCAR world seems to be on the brink of salvation.
Just don’t ask Dale Earnhardt Jr. if he is back at the top of his game. Despite having a better season than he had in all of 2009, Earnhardt Jr. knows he has made strides but is not ready to say he is back just yet.
“I hope I can come into the next race and keep up the consistency and do it again, and do it again,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t have the time to be worried about anything else other than just trying to keep going. So, it’s a lot of pressure to try and keep going and try to keep up the expectations that everybody has for you.
“So when we accomplish certain goals like when we win a race or a couple of races, or make the Chase, or win a race in the Chase or battle for the championship…those are the kinds of things that I can get excited about and be happy with and I will enjoy those moments,” he said. “And I am happy to be consistent, but we still have another step to go and still we are running 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th at Texas when we should be running 3rd, 4th, and 5th you know?”
This is the vigor, drive and determination many saw lacking in Earnhardt Jr. during his first three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.
Poor performances led team owner Rick Hendrick to swap shops during the off-season, putting Earnhardt Jr. with Jeff Gordon’s former crew led by Steve Letarte and in the same shop as five-time defending champions Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
The move seems to have paid off. After eight races, Earnhardt Jr. has two top 5s, five top 10s and is only 19 points behind Carl Edwards in the series standings. One person who has seen a marked improvement all around is Johnson.
“It’s amazing how much more interaction you have with the driver that’s in your shop,” he said. “I would see Junior in passing at team meetings and things that take place at HMS throughout the week, but now there is a lot more time that I spend with him whether it’s talking or through emails. I got home and up and at it on Monday morning and I had three emails from him explaining different scenarios about what he thought went on with the car and how to make our stuff better. And then I looked at who he had sent it to and it was the engineers, the crew chiefs, and myself.
"I don’t know what he was like before, or if this is new, or what; and I have seen his commitment from afar and I know we’ve all had hoped for a little more success and different situations for him but he, like he was before and has always been committed to his team and is doing his best job. I’m excited to work with him and to really see that first-hand even more than I have in the past.”
Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, said this was nothing new to the 2011 season. The difference, he said, was simply the contrast between how things are done at Hendrick Motorsports and how they were done at his former team, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“It’s always the way I’ve sort of worked,” Earnhardt said. “I think I got better at being plugged in. I got better at my communication when I first started working with Hendrick because how they do things is different than what I’ve done in the past at DEI. The team meetings after the practices, the team meetings during the week prior to the races, and the communication between the driver and the crew chief being more on a daily basis. All those things are opportunities for an idea to pop up or for you to just be continuously giving the crew chief and the team your information and your thoughts and vice-versa. We never really did much of that at DEI. We just kind of showed up and went to the track and if Pops needed to know something he’d call me and ask me or whatever, you know? We just didn’t do those things, which a lot of teams didn’t at the time.”
Now the times have changed and, even though he may not want to admit it, Earnhardt Jr. has changed. It is evident he is tired of running poorly and having to face the constant criticism and disappointment that follows. Crew chief changes in the past did little to end the struggles, but partnering with a five-time championship caliber team may have been just what the sport’s most popular driver needed.
Yet, simply running well does not seem to be enough for Earnhardt Jr. Whereas he was frustrated with poor performances in the past, Earnhardt is now frustrated running in the top 10 and not the top 5. With that kind of attitude and approach to the season could lead to big things from the driver that can drive the fan base like no other.