DW on Dale Earnhardt Jr. success: ‘It’s the sum of all the parts’
Among the several factors that Darrell Waltrip believes have contributed to the success of Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year is Junior's close relationship with Amy Reimann, who recently gave him a winning kiss in Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway.
Almost every day — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s on FOXSports.com, Twitter, Facebook or even in a restaurant here in Franklin, Tenn. — someone will ask me what is the difference in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance this year than in years past. My answer is always the same: It’s "the sum of all the parts."
There are so many different pieces of this puzzle and they are all coming together for them this year. I think the new rules package NASCAR handed out for 2014 is one factor. In the past we’d hear Dale Jr. on the team radio over and over again complain that the car was "falling over on the right front." This year with the new no-ride-height rule package the cars are locked down. They are down on the ground and pretty much as low as they are going to go. So obviously not only is it a different feel, but it’s a feel that Dale Jr. likes.
That same feel might be part of the reason we have also seen the resurgence of our four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. It’s obviously a feel he likes as we’ve seen with all his success so far this year. Jeff is on top of the regular season points. He has three wins and out of the 23 races run so far and he has 16 top-10 finishes. Jeff is red-hot right now and a clear pick to win Saturday night at Bristol. Jeff is back to having fun again at the race track, too.
That’s the same thing I am seeing from Dale Jr. He’s having fun again driving a stock car. Make no mistake, the boy can drive. He reminds me so much of his Dad in so many ways. Dale Sr. was at his best when his car wasn’t at its best. I’ve seen Dale Jr. do things and get a performance out of a car that really wasn’t that good of a car. He’s one heck of a wheelman.
So the 2014 rule changes have seemed to help Dale Jr. So the cars are better and you can’t discount all that steam under those Hendrick hoods. Those Hendrick Chevrolet engines simply seem to be a notch or two above not only the other Chevys in the field but also the Fords and the Toyotas. So that’s another big component in Dale Jr.’s progression this year.
I think having a steady girlfriend in Amy Reimann also has done a lot to stabilize his life. I think she’s done a lot to bring him out of his shell and that’s also a big factor for his happiness on and off the race track. I think she has done a lot to help him realize there is more to life than whether you win or lose on a Sunday afternoon.
I really believe that it affected him in the past because he felt he didn’t win enough and didn’t deserve the popularity. Being the son of Dale Earnhardt comes with a lot of pressure as folks inside and outside the garage area set lofty and usually unachievable expectations on you.
It just seems like Dale Jr. has settled down now and is comfortable in his own skin. His father was one of a kind — there will never be another one like him, but I think Dale is comfortable with the fact that he isn’t his father — he is own person and a very good person, at that. I still laugh when I think of the time he and I were at Texas Motor Speedway. This was just a year or two into his Cup career and we were in the back of a car being taken to an appearance.
Out of the blue he said, "DW, will you do me a favor?"
He looked at me and replied, "Would you PLEASE tell my Father I know what I am doing?"
I also think a huge part of the success of the No. 88 team is a commitment by everyone to make this a championship winning team because it will be the last time they will all be together. As everyone is aware of by now, crew chief Steve LeTarte is headed to the TV booth next year when NBC returns to our sport.
I think they all sat down together and Steve said, "Well, I’ve never won a Daytona 500,"and Dale Jr. said, "Well, I’ve never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship." I would wager right then and there that became their goal as a way to go out in style. Part one of that equation was accomplished in February when Dale Jr. won the Daytona 500. So that set the tone for the beginning of the season and now their mission is to reach the final goal and win the championship at the end of the season.
They certainly are putting the numbers up on the board this year in spades. Dale Jr. is second in the points and only three points behind his teammate Jeff Gordon. Think about this, in 23 races, Dale Jr. has finished in the top five an astonishing 11 times. That is the most of any of the Cup drivers this season, by the way. And just like his teammate Jeff, Dale Jr. also has 16 top-10 finishes.
The thing I love about Dale Jr. is that the man has a lot of depth. There simply is no shallowness where he is concerned. He’s smart, he’s engaging and he’s learned to trust people. Most importantly the thing I see in the man is he’s having fun. Have you watched him in Victory Circle this year? Each win is special to him and he savors every second of it. I think that’s a by-product of being in that slump like he was for a handful a years and not winning very often, if at all.
It’s clear to me that now to Dale Jr. being in Victory Lane is priceless and he’s going to squeeze all he can out of it. The other thing I see him doing is making sure every single person on the team gets their share of the limelight in Victory Circle. Yes the drivers always are and always will be the star, but Dale Jr. is making sure everyone associated with the success of the No. 88 feel the spotlight, too.
Again, I just think it’s the sum of all the parts this year that are adding up to the success of Dale Jr. and the No. 88 car this year. We all are enjoying seeing Dale Jr. being the driver we all knew he was capable of being because the man is happy both on and off the race track. He loves racing at Bristol so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win Saturday night.
To me he will always be June-Bug to me — that little kid flying around and running all over the shop. That’s the person I always think about when I think of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Come early December at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Banquet, with the sum of all the parts, I might be thinking of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a champion. Now wouldn’t that be something?
VIDEO: A look back at Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane, celebrating his 2014 Daytona 500 win