Winning Now On Juniors Mind

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You see Dale Earnhardt Jr. all over the place these days. He’s become as close to a pop star as anyone in NASCAR since, well, since NASCAR was formed.

There he is, wearing a leather jacket and glamming it up for a men’s cologne commercial. Look again, and he’s in the pages of Playboy. Sorry, ladies, he’s not taking it all off.

Another night, he’s on the couch next to Jay Leno. Then you’ll see him on MTV, goofing off in a video with the Matthew Good Band.

He’s sponsored by a beer company, and he loves to party, hang out with his friends, check out women. He’s the perfect match for a corporation that wants to reach the 20-somethings, a group hard to reach by most ad campaigns.

But, wait, isn’t Earnhardt Jr. a race-car driver? Doesn’t he have to win first?

Most importantly, is he content simply to be the party-animal model for the 20-somethings to emulate? Or does he want more, want to get better, want to win, to dominate?

In short, does he want to be Junior? Or does he want to be Earnhardt Jr.?

At one point in his career, he was Junior, the partier without a clue, a guy with more talent than confidence.

“I don’t know if it was some sort of self-defense mechanism,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When I started racing in the Busch Series and started racing in the Winston Cup Series, I didn’t put a lot of credibility into winning races and being a champion. It was probably a self-defense mechanism in case I failed. I didn’t want to disappoint myself.”

Eventually, Earnhardt Jr. got over himself. He realized he had enough talent to be a champion, even if it was in the Busch Series. But it carried over to Winston Cup, and Earnhardt Jr. relishes the chance to race for a championship.

“Now that I feel I’m capable of doing these things, I take a little more prominent effort toward it, put a little more value in it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When we won the first Busch Series championship, we were kind of like, ‘Well, that’s cool. No big deal.’ We kind of laughed it off.

“Now that I look back on it, winning two of them in a row, I’m real proud of it.”

And he’d be REALLY proud of a Winston Cup title. So much so that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win a championship. It could happen this year, too, even if Earnhardt admits he has work to do on “25 percent” of the Winston Cup tracks.

“There’s more to me professionally than just magazine covers and kick-ass sponsors and fun times,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to win championships and I like winning races. We celebrate and enjoy ourselves, we enjoy that.

“We look forward to winning more, but aside from just winning the championship and all the celebration and the extras and whatnot that come along with that, there’s something to be said about having that asterisk beside your name for the rest of your life and the rest of the time in the books that says you were champion sometime in your life.”

Desire is a big part of a championship driver, and it’s clear Earnhardt Jr. has that desire

“I think I’m a good race car driver, and I can see that I have a great opportunity to really take it to several levels and to be somebody that maybe is in the same sentence with several of the greats in the sport down the road, so I need to win some championships to make that prove true,” Earnhardt Jr. said.

Lest you think Earnhardt Jr. will give up one part of his personality in pursuit of a championship, Junior will still be around.

“There doesn’t need to be a choice,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t feel pressure as if there’s two sides of the fence. I like having fun, and I do it responsibly. I go out and party with my friends, but I’m going tell you what, I’ve seen a lot of drivers out there partying, same time I’m out there partying, they’re out partying, so I ain’t doing anything nobody else is.

“I don’t keep this private. I don’t hide it from everybody. I do it responsibly. ... I think I’ve got my head on straight.”

And it’s focused on winning the Winston Cup championship.

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