Junior At A Crossroads

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has appeared to reach a crossroads in his career. He is undoubtedly the most popular driver in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, as anyone who has seen the mob he has following him in the garage area can attest.

No other driver gets as much attention as Junior. He’s become the poster boy of 21st century NASCAR, bringing a new generation of fans to the sport with his unique combination of down-home charm, hip style and the Earnhardt name.

But a not-so-funny thing has happened. While his popularity soared off the track, he stunk on it. A season that held so much promise had turned into a year of aggravation.

“Every driver in the garage gets to that point some time in the season,” Earnhardt Jr. said last week. “But we just got into a slump. We were fifth in the points, won Talladega, looked like we were going to have a shot at putting ourselves up there all year, being in the Top 5, Top 10.”

Then he took a hard hit at California Speedway and hasn’t really been the same since. Sure, he is physically fine now, but the crash took something out of him and his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.

“It took me as a driver about two or three weeks to get out from under that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “And the team never kind of recovered. It’s kind of similar to what Steve (Park) was going through this year as he’s had kind of a crash that took him out as a driver and he wasn’t 100 percent. Now that he’s better and can do the job, the team isn’t where it needs to be.

“And I’m not pointing fingers. That doesn’t do us any favors. Didn’t last year; didn’t the year before. You get to a point where you run seven, eight races with not a good finish, not a good thing happening to you, you get to a point where you either get up and work harder or you give up. I ain’t giving up.”

Junior realized that doing the same old thing wasn’t working. Since that crash at California, he had finished in the Top 10 only twice before last week’s race at Michigan. And beyond that, he had finished 22nd or worse eight times. He went from fifth in the points to a low of 17th.

Communication, the driving force behind any great team, had suffered. Earnhardt Jr. said he, crew chief Tony Eury Sr. and car chief Tony Eury Jr. were relying too much on stuff that worked in the past instead of working on what was happening now.

“It’s really a lot harder I think than I ever imagined as far as getting the cars to handle good and drive good,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It might look like we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the plate races and we overlooked other tracks as unimportant or lesser of importance to us, that’s not the case. We’re just so damned pissed off about how we run at some of these places, we take it home with us, and it wears us out.

“We’re just trying to kind of fabricate a system this year that will work for us next year, and we won’t be so inconsistent.”

The poor communication, Earnhardt Jr. said, was a product of his popularity. And that’s where the crossroads enters in. Does he want to be a driving Anna Kournikova, a popular athlete without proper credentials? Or does he want to be more like his dad, who often shunned the attention to focus on the task at hand?

“If you walk up and down this garage and look behind everybody’s pit you won’t see too many people standing anywhere but behind our pit,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There’s 30, 40 people always around our garage stall. There’s reporters, there’s press, there’s fans. We’re just really kind of under a lot of pressure to perform.

“I feel kind of so undeserving sometimes because we run like crap on the race track and we still get all this attention – being the focal point of the sport, and we’re going to lead the sport into the new millennium or whatever. We can’t do any of that if we can’t run good on the race track.

“You just get so frustrated sometimes because you don’t do what you want to do and what you think you can do. I feel like I can win five championships in a row if my car drives great every week; I think anybody can. You get to where you feel like you’re wasting time sometimes. I just want to win, I want to win championships, and nothing else really matters.”

Earnhardt Jr. has tried to find a delicate balance between his responsibility to his fans and his responsibility to his team. He doesn’t want to be seen as a prima Dona, especially to his teammates.

“It really puts a bind on your relationship with your team when you’ve got to kind of hide underneath something all day long just to be able to concentrate on the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said.

Junior said all the attention is even a little embarrassing.

“We go to all these appearances and all these people show up, and I never get used to it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s never like something you expect. It’s good, it’s fun, the excitement is great, but sometimes it kind of makes you nervous. It makes me a little nervous sometimes because I never get used to it. I wonder whether I ever will.

“My Dad used to be able to walk through here. A lot of drivers can do that; walk through here and blurt everything out and shut it all down and not be bothered by it. Their focus seems to be able to stay 100 percent on the car and stuff. If I walk from the car to the bus and back I’ve done forgot everything I just did because there are so many people hollering your name.”

He’s not whining. He’s just stating facts.

But he also realizes he has to be the one to control it. He has to learn to block out the outside distractions and focus on driving.

And in the past couple of weeks, he seems to have done that. Earnhardt Jr. won the pole and finished 10th at Michigan, and then qualified second and finished third at Bristol.

“What I didn’t do personally – and what I was talking about last week, taking myself out of the equation – was buckle down harder,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When things got tougher I didn’t try harder. And I felt like, ‘All right, I’m going to pace myself and I’m going to keep this pace as far as my workload, my work ethic all year long,’ and you can’t.

“And this stretch of 20 races, when a lot of people get burned out and the relentless activities at the track and whatnot that you’ve got to deal with, they don’t change – you’ve just got to work harder. And I didn’t try to work harder. I thought how I was and how I felt about my job and I was doing my part was the right attitude, when apparently it wasn’t. These guys, they step up. I feel like I didn’t step up until about last week.”

A championship is probably out of the question this season, as he’s 600 points out of the lead. But righting the ship has become the No. 1 priority, and if the past two weeks are any indication, Earnhardt Jr. is going in the right direction.

“We’ve had a real disappointing middle part of the season,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s good to come back and run good. We’ve got, let’s see, two top-10s now in the last two weeks; that’s nine for the year. I’m pretty happy. Hey, it’s hard work. We had to kind of bear down a little bit harder to try to do better, and it’s taken a lot out of me. And taken a lot out of my team.

“I’m real excited about just trying to do this every week. It takes a lot of luck, takes a good race car, takes a good driver and a good team. And hopefully, as hard as we’re working, we’ll get all them things at the same time every week and have good runs like this. I’m just real proud of my team. Me and Tony Jr. really ain’t never got along this good since the Busch days. When you do good you don’t have that many problems. But we still know we’ve got problems, and we’re trying to solve them.”

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