CONCORD, N.C. – For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daytona Speedweeks can’t come soon enough.
His second-place finish in last year’s running of the Great American Race launched the driver’s best attempt at a title run in eight seasons.
And this year’s running of the Daytona 500 — Feb. 24, noon ET on FOX — will set the tone for Junior’s 2013 campaign.
“I’m really excited and look forward to sort of getting back to that older style of (restrictor) plate racing and I think it will provide a really good Daytona 500.”
Wonder what kind of season Junior will have? You’re not alone. Here are a few clues:
It’s All About the Relationships …
For the last two seasons, Earnhardt has built a solid foundation with the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team and crew chief Steve Letarte.
The relationships go well beyond the track. Last week at Earnhardt’s Whisky River nightclub in Charlotte, he and teammate Jimmie Johnson held a kickoff party for the Nos. 48 and 88 shop to jumpstart the season.
Letarte says his relationship with Junior is just “natural.” Letarte’s wife Tricia and Earnhardt’s girlfriend of four years Amy Reimann tease the pair about their man crush.
And while Letarte gets a lot of credit for inspiring Earnhardt and the team, he insists that it’s the driver who has adopted the leadership role.
“For 72 races now, he hasn’t changed one bit,” Letarte said. “He’s been on time or early for every race with a smile and ready to go. At the end of the race, he’s ready to get back in the car on Monday. I appreciate his enthusiasm because it is leading by example. And I believe it’s 100 percent genuine enthusiasm.
“I get a lot of credit for this big motivational this and that, but he motivates me. His enthusiasm tops me a lot of days. Everybody needs somebody to push them and he’s the guy that pushes me to do the best at my job. Hopefully, I can do the best for him.”
Location, Location, Location …
For the first time since Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his NASCAR debut in 1996, he’s entering the season with available advertising real estate on his Chevy. Yes, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is 15 races short of full sponsorship.
How is this possible? After two seasons without a win and a six-year absence from atop the point standings, Earnhardt had a comeback year — and he’s just getting started.
“You have to find the right guy that’s interested in something that size and is willing to fit the price range you want as a team,” Earnhardt said. “You can’t undersell compared to what you’re working with on the other races and the contracts you have in place. Everything has to align itself and there’s other opportunities out there.”
It’s a new generation …
It’s really too early for any of the drivers to have a concrete idea of how the Generation 6 car will handle over the long haul. But for drivers such as Junior whose performance suffered throughout the Car of Tomorrow Generation — he posted just two wins in six seasons — it’s a welcomed reprieve.
“I like this car a whole lot more than the COT,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “The car is going to provide a better race car for us and give us a better product.”
Earnhardt, who dreaded testing in the past, couldn’t wait to arrive in Daytona for Pre-Season Thunder. Ditto the shakedown of the Gen-6 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While he believes “it’s going to take some time to really understand where it all fits and how it fits” him, obviously, the COT “was not a very good fit” for Earnhardt.
“I struggled with the (COT) car and you couldn’t overdrive the car at all, even half a car length into the corner and it would get pissed off at you,” Earnhardt said of the COT’s handling characteristics. “This car we have today still has a splitter, but I think the rest of the car is definitely a step back toward the old, original car we used to have. I think that’s going to benefit me in certain areas and in other areas, I’ll still have to learn. There will be new things about this car. New things it does that you’ll have to tailor yourself to and understand.
“I’m certain that I’ll have to have an open mind towards a lot of things about the car that I might not fall in love with, but as a whole the car is really exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”
Will 2013 Finally Be The Year Junior Wins It All?
From the moment Earnhardt made his Nationwide Series debut at Myrtle Beach Speedway in 1996, he’s been scrutinized as the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
There were few coming-out parties in the Cup Series as heralded as the 25-year-old’s in 2000, particularly after dominating the NNS with back-to-back championships. Even the driver admits he felt “the sky was the limit.” The lofty expectations weighed on the rookie as evidenced by consecutive wrecks at Darlington and Bristol. Then at Texas, in the seventh race — his 12th career Cup start — Earnhardt earned his first of two victories that year.
Despite losing his father the following year in the Daytona 500, Junior amassed 16 wins before he turned 30. Although the next six seasons would be difficult as he left Dale Earnhardt Inc. and transitioned into Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt never doubted his own natural talent. Even during the darkest times, he believed a championship was in him.
“I never thought to myself, ‘well, me as a driver, I’m just not cut out to be a champion, I don’t have what it takes.’ I never felt that way,” Earnhardt said. “I just knew that it takes so many variables to come together. It takes everything working the right way.
“‘Are the opportunities ahead of me that I’ve had in the past?’ I wasn’t entirely confident about that part. It felt like we were so far away from where we needed to be. Then Rick made all these changes and things started looking up. I enjoyed who I was working with in regards to Steve and the team.”
But as Earnhardt reiterated his sentiment from one year ago, the team must continue to progress and cannot afford to “flat line.” Accepting a top 10 position in the point standings will guarantee the No. 88 crew a berth in the Chase to the Sprint Cup — it takes much more to win the title.
“We have to be a top-five team,” Earnhardt said. “We have to do things better — and we did that last year. We were in the points lead a couple of times and in the conversation about the Chase as one of the teams to look at as far as a contender. I’d never been that as many years as I can remember.”
Under the direction of Letarte, the No. 88 crew never wavered through the first 26 races in spite of a concussion sustained during a testing accident on Aug. 29 before Atlanta. Earnhardt assumed the points lead at the end of July for the first time since October 2004 and he never dropped lower than fifth in the standings.
But it was the lack of wins that tanked the team to seventh place once the points from his sole Michigan win were recalculated to reflect his position in the standings. Earnhardt says the team was “disappointed” with the lack of wins and must “look at ourselves as a team that’s capable of winning multiple races.”
“We have to maintain that consistency that we had last year,” Earnhardt said. “When you get to Pocono — just like we did in the middle of last summer — you start to look at your situation and say, ‘Hmm, we’re a contender,’ that’s what I felt like last year. I hope that we’ll feel the same way when we get to the summer this year.”
The Show Must Go On — But For How Much Longer?
Earnhardt signed a five-year extension in the summer of 2011 that goes into effect this season and will expire when the driver is 42. While Earnhardt has always been extremely open in his relationship with the media, recently the driver has become more reflective.
Certainly, when Earnhardt was sidelined last fall due to a concussion, he had plenty of time to think.
Earnhardt acknowledges that he took racing for granted in his younger years. There would always be cars to drive and races to run. But with every season that has passed since his father was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, particularly the ones of late when the driver would have given anything to win, Earnhardt has realized just how precious — and fleeting — his opportunity has been.
“When you were young, it was cool to go to the Daytona 500 but you knew you were going to be at the next one and the next one and the next one,” Earnhardt said. “Eventually you get to a point where you can count how many you’ve got left on both hands and you start to take things a lot more seriously and involve yourself into the experience a lot more.
“But that’s a direct result of the way we’ve been running. When you run well, you definitely enjoy it and want to do it and be around it and think about the next 10 years. If they’re like this, it will be great.”