Thomas Bowles · Sunday February 10, 2008
For most NASCAR aficionados, the 83 days between the last race at Homestead and the green flag for the Bud Shootout seem like nothing less than an eternity.
But in the case of one man more than anyone else, 2008 couldn't come soon enough - if for no other reason then to take the prognosticators and finally shut them up.
"I've always raced with pressure," said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. moments after coming out on top in the Shootout, his first race driving Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 Chevrolet. "I've always raced and worked and lived in tumultuous situations â€¦ Tony Junior and I, even before we got to this level, life wasn't easy. It wasn't ever a golden road."
"But it is what it is."
What these past three months were for Junior morphed into an avalanche of hype difficult to control, hope turned fanaticism as he assumed his role within Cup's most successful organization as of late. The controversy surrounding Earnhardt following the DEI split was supposed to fade away; instead, it morphed into dogged anticipation of a brighter future ahead. There was a slow but steady need for this move to be validated - or invalidated - throughout NASCAR culture, and the sport's Most Popular Driver was given a most unrealistic level of offseason scrutiny before he even stepped foot behind the wheel when it counted. A January rumor that his winning trophies were removed from DEI - even when proven false — merely served to add fuel to a story which developed a life of its own. Let’s put it this way; Junior was characterized as having broken from the "evil stepmother" while moved to NASCAR's equivalent of the New York Yankees. The way that story's supposed to end in fairy tales isn't with him finishing 15th every week… and so much of a sniff of that type of performance from Hendrick would lead to a mountain of critics the second the checkered flag flew.
As a result, by the time the No. 88 car pulled into Daytona to begin its first "official" 2008 business in February, it wasn't just expected to win.
Anything less wouldn't be enough.
"There are so many people who helped prepare this deal and hoping to get it right to where we could come in here and be able to work under this microscope, you know?" said Junior of a three-month stint in which the "no excuses" label quickly became reality. "Tony (Stewart) and Kurt (Busch) getting into it the other day (during practice) took us off the front page (for the first time in awhile) — I felt such a relief after that happened. I wasn't happy for those guys to be in that situation, but I felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking to the NASCAR hauler. And that was just as good as any push Jimmie could have given me (to win the Shootout)."
Well, that push puts Junior back on the front page now. Through the help of his new Hendrick teammates - as well as some pretty strong moves of his own - he was able to hold off all challengers in the closing laps of NASCAR's exhibition race, leading 47 of 70 laps en route to the checkered flag. Afterwards, the scene was the equivalent of a candidate pulling a come-from-behind win in the New Hampshire primary. For any eloquent politician would thank anyone within earshot to let them know how much the delegates mean to them; but deep down, they know it's merely one step in what's bound to be a long-term process ahead.
"It feels good to answer the question can we win," said car owner Rick Hendrick. "It takes a big load off."
Or does it? Expectations are exceeded all the time, but when you're looked at as a man who can help restore popularity to the sport, a win to start off the year does more than increase the attention; it raises the level of hope. Once you win, those around you expect it to keep happening; and when you're the son of one of the greatest drivers who ever lived, underdog is promptly removed from the vocabulary.
In this case, you can now replace that word with overwhelming favorite.
"That was kind of like a storybook ending," added crew chief Tony Eury, Jr., temporarily validated after putting his career on the line to join Junior over at Hendrick. "(But) the biggest thing that I see on this team (for the future) is I want to build a fire with them and win races with them."
Perhaps that’s the best part of this win, after all, solid performance allowing the sheer innocence of these two Juniors to continue to shine through. After all, there's nothing better to relieve the stress of racing than finishing first; and after a year and a half outside the winner’s circle, it was an Advil that needed to be taken one heck of a long time ago.
"There is a lot of pressure, I think, for us," said Junior as the lights dimmed Saturday night. "But we've always delivered. And I hope we will continue."
It's a good attitude to have knowing that, come Sunday, all eyes will now be even more squarely focused once again on the No. 88 - if that's even possible. But the difference is, now they don't just think he can win â€¦ they know.
Hope Junior’s ready for one pressure cooker of a season.
If You Are What You Say You Are
Then Have No Fear
The Crowd Is Here
And The Lights Are On
And They Want A Showâ€¦
Lupe Fiasco, Superstar
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