Dale Earnhardt Jr., before his relationship with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and his stepmother took a turn for the worse, had swagger.
He was the next big thing in NASCAR, a mortal lock for Most Popular Driver and a threat to win just about every weekend. He’d survived the racing death of his father, the attendant shifting of support from his father’s fans and all that had come his way … until he and his stepmother, Teresa, got into a very public spat over his future.
There went the swagger, the braggadocio, the cockiness, replaced by a sort of ennui on the track that left him a very, very popular throttle-pedal-to-headrest-spacer rather than the driver who came within a cuss word and a crash from contending for the title in 2004. You can say his subsequent fall from grace — one victory since 2008 — was a result of being forced to leave a home that was all he had ever known for a place where championships came like spring rains and performance was the standard, not the exception in a businesslike atmosphere.
Still, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown signs of shaking out of his slump as of late, making the Chase last year and running well through the first four races of 2012. Most importantly, after Sunday at Bristol (March 18), the swagger may be back.
Sure, it didn’t show in the final results sheet. Earnhardt did blow another top-10 finish with a speeding penalty on pit road with 23 laps remaining, eventually finishing 15th after running in or near the top five all day. But it was something he said, or rather how he said it, after an incident that ruined teammate Jeff Gordon’s day which raised eyebrows.
The conflict came with 41 laps remaining and the two battling for position. Earnhardt was on the bottom and Gordon rode the top of Bristol’s progressive banking. Coming off turn 2, the two slid closer and closer together, making slight contact. The exhaust pipes — or the lip of the rocker panels — cut Gordon’s left-rear tire, leaving the No. 24 car defenseless. The end result sent him into the wall and ended his shot at a top-10 finish.
“I think we bumped more than we should have is the way it looks like,” a non-plussed Gordon said later. “We definitely didn’t hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left-rear (tire) immediately. We didn’t hit that hard. We were a little bit too tight and he was pretty good on the restart there and we were racing hard.”
“I know that it wasn’t intentional, but it certainly ruined our day.”
OK, that’s a bad thing. Teammates should never wreck each other, especially when both are having good days. But it was a racing accident, nothing more. At Bristol, beating and banging is pretty much expected; even under the new configuration, it’s .533 miles of contact disguised as a racetrack. In other words, stuff happens.
“I feel bad [about] what happened to Jeff, but we were just racing,” Earnhardt confirmed after the race was over. “And that wasn’t nothing. We barely touched. That’s just kind of a freak deal. So, I’m not going to beat myself all to hell about it. I feel bad [about] what happened to him and I’m going to tell him about it. But I screwed myself on speeding. And we were running good. I think we were running good as a team. We’re a good team.”
A year ago, certainly two years ago, that wouldn’t have been the answer. It would have been a mumble, uttered while looking everywhere but the camera lens.
On Sunday, though Junior was standing tall, looking straight into the eye of the camera and cutting loose.
“We’re showing all the signs of any of these other guys capable of running up front and maybe winning us a race or two this year,” he continued. “We’re going to keep it up. I’m going to take all the positives I can out of this one. We ran good. We didn’t run good last year. We struggled and just kind of limped around and made something out of nothing. Today we ran good; and I feel good about that.”
That’s about all Junior Nation needs to know. Of course, they’d probably appreciate it if Junior would quit tripping on his air hose on pit road, but this is a case of small steps for the near future.
“I got busted for speeding,” Junior said with a frustrated tone. “I really hate that happened. I don’t think I was; but I don’t [think] any driver ever thinks he was speeding. I came down the back straightaway and I had green lights all the way down. I had two red lights on the front straightaway.”
“I was told I was speeding on the back, but if anywhere, I was speeding on the front. I don’t know. This place is probably hard to tell exactly what is happening. I don’t really trust those timing lines too much. If they say so, I guess we were speeding. It’s a difficult way to give up a good finish. We ran hard. We worked hard all day.”
Despite the late stumble, Earnhardt was upbeat.
“We had a good, fast car,” he proclaimed. “We didn’t have a good car here last year. We’re improving. Things are looking up for our team, and we’ve been running strong this year. I expect more of it. (If) we put cars like we did today on the racetrack, we’ll get some shots at some wins.”
He’s talking the talk; walking the walk will take longer. First, this driver’s got to find out how mad Gordon is and how he goes about making that right.
“I absolutely feel responsible,” Earnhardt said. “I got into his door a little bit. We were racing and having a good time, to be honest with you. I put the pipes up against the left-rear tire of his car, and knocked the side wall out of it. I hate … I feel bad about that. I’m going to have to do some damage control this week.”
“We were racing really hard. It was fun. If there is a track where you can lean on each other a little bit, then this ought to be the place. We just barely rubbed down the back straightaway.”
Hendrick cars tend to run near the front every week. There is a better-than-even chance they’ll be running together. When they do, the expectation is that they’ll race hard but clean. They did on Sunday; it was a racing deal as expressed by both drivers.
“I’m sure some people might have thought that was a hard hit,” Earnhardt explained. “That, to me was good hard racing. I feel terrible about that happening to my teammate. Those guys work really hard and they were running good and happy with their car, I’m sure.”
“But, there are four of us out there we are bound to race each other and run into each other every once in a while. Otherwise, I’m just frustrated about the finish, but we did run good. We run better than we run here last year. We run really good pretty much everywhere except for Phoenix. Things are looking up for our team.”
And that, Junior Nation and the rest of the NASCAR world, tells you all you need to know about Junior’s swagger.
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