A Bolder Earnhardt
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on February 24, 2014 | 12:01 P.M. EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and car owner Rick Hendrick admire their Daytona 500 rings in Victory Lane. (Photo: Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - He drove differently. And when it was over, he even acted differently.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was bolder during and after Sunday night’s Daytona 500, showing an assertiveness that has not been so evident. Unwilling to watch someone else win this race as he had so often before, Earnhardt didn’t settle into position but attacked, searching for any way to be at the front in the final laps.
When he got there, he was greedy. He took every bit of pavement to keep the field behind. He blocked high and low. Even then, he wasn’t sure if it would be enough.
"I come off of (Turn) 4 for the checkered and for some reason, I felt that the Gods were going to be working against me and there was going to be another lap or two to run," Earnhardt said.
There was a crash but when the caution waved, the race was over and Earnhardt became a two-time Daytona 500 winner. Then, the celebration began.
Earnhardt was giddy, but focused on what this year could mean now that he’s all but assured a spot in the Chase.
"We’re going for the jugular," he said of this season, his final one with crew chief Steve Letarte before Letarte moves to the broadcast booth. Monday morning, after an hour of sleep, Earnhardt remained firm.
"We ain’t got far to go before we’re one of the best teams, if we’re not already," he said before jetting to New York to appear on various shows. "It’s our time. This is our year."
One race doesn’t prove anything. Drivers have won the Daytona 500 and proclaimed how it would serve as a springboard to their season. Some years it does, other years it doesn’t. Based on Earnhardt’s progression, how he ran last year, particularly in the Chase, this seems to be a team on the rise.
Earnhardt finished fifth in the points last year - his best result since 2006. After an engine failure in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt had a 5.6 average finish in the final nine races. Champion Jimmie Johnson had an average finish of 5.1 in the same span.
Earnhardt’s improvement is a result, partly, of his relationship with Letarte and how Letarte has provided the equipment that helps Earnhardt succeed. There’s more. Car owner Rick Hendrick says the difference in Earnhardt is stark from previous years.
"I’ve never seen him so happy and so loose," Hendrick said. "It’s going to be the Dale Earnhardt that we all want to see. When you feel like you’re at your best, that other tenth is easy to get. But when you feel like the car is not really there, or somebody blew a pit stop, or you just can’t get comfortable in that setting ... it just shows up. Not many people can carry it when it’s not there.
"I see that with him and I think that’s very important for him. You hear him talk about it."
It’s also a sign of how he’s learned from teammates Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Johnson.
When Earnhardt joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, his eating habits were poor and his workout routine was worse. He didn’t do everything he could to be as good a driver as possible. Hendrick notes that Earnhardt eats better, works out more and doesn’t smoke as he once did.
"It’s been a transformation with Dale," Hendrick said. "He is hungry. I think that edge, that determination that Jimmie and Jeff have, I think he’s got that, too. You don’t spend that much time debriefing with those guys and not get a little bit of that. You become a student of what you need to do.
"He’s done that. That’s a tremendous, tremendous change."
Now, we’ll see if that change can help Earnhardt win more races and a championship.