Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 16, 2007
The final stages of growing up are really sort of a fickle process. Age becomes merely a number, maturity a stepping stone through which you jump through the hoops of some fiery lessons in order to land precariously on the runway of adulthood. It's not an easy process; I'm 26, and I know for sure I'm still jumping through those hoops each week, rotating at will between teenage angst and middle-aged citizen with each passing crisis. Clearly, the road to becoming not just an adult, but one filled with both purpose and conviction, is never an easy step to undertake.
Perhaps there's no one in NASCAR that can relate more to that than Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; forced to grow up before our eyes for the past several years, the death of a father in the public eye combined with bouts of his own personality crises left him a frequent target for criticism. While those subtle jabs at character slowly faded away, Junior still needed to transition from outgoing, 20-something partier to focused, socially balanced 30-something driver with a mission.
Sunday's race was another glaring example of how that transition is nearing completion.
As the Samsung 500 got underway, Junior's car on Sunday resembled that of a rocket ship; picking up where he left off at Martinsville, the No. 8 car was up front early and often, engaging in a battle with fellow Mr. Popularity Jeff Gordon for the lead that left most of the 190,000+ fans at Texas on their feet. Leading 96 of the first 250 laps, Junior appeared primed and ready to put to bed a 33-race winless streak that has become the longest drought of his Nextel Cup career.
Sadly, that drought officially filed an extension on lap 253. Coming off turn four, Tony Stewart's damaged car broke loose and spun, causing a sea of smoke to envelop most of that section of the Speedway. Junior slowed up, realizing the danger ahead; Kyle Busch behind him wasn't so cautious. Slamming into the back of the No. 8 car at almost 140 MPH, both Busch and Junior went spinning into the infield, their chances for victory up in smoke. The No. 5 car went immediately to the garage, with the No. 8 joining him not long after.
Known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, the wreck should have been devastating to Junior - especially coming off a race at Martinsville that was all but won until poor handling and an unfortunate accident (debris in the eye) sent him tumbling back to 5th. Clearly, the wreck wasn't his fault, the result of an immature mistake from a driver still learning the ropes in his third season on tour. Frustration would likely be the mood of choice for most of the "young guns" on the circuit; in the past, Junior would have likely chosen a more downtrodden tone. But this is Junior on a mission, and he chose a far different approach to deal with adversityâ€¦optimism.
"There’s a lot of ways to deal with (this)," said Earnhardt, Jr. after the wreck. "(But) we didn’t do anything to cause our misfortune. You’ve got to take some satisfaction in how the car ran. The guys in the shop were bringing a car to the race track that’s working when it gets here. We’re improving that; we’re running well in the races."
"We had a great race car. I’m proud of my team; all the guys at the shop. They should be really, really proud of the car they brought to the race track. The motor was fantastic."
The mood was a far cry from Junior's comments back at Daytona, in which he called out the engine program for lack of horsepower. However, it hasn't taken long for those comments to fade; even with an engine failure the following race at California, Junior optimistically chirped about how the engine department was going to get their issues fixed, his voice projecting a subtle confidence that his team was capable of getting back on track. It appeared to be a turning point, especially in the face of increasing scrutiny as to whether Junior would leave the organization; the team realized their driver still had their back, and the group had responded with four consecutive Top 15s heading to Texas, a streak that has Junior quickly climbing the Top 20 in Nextel Cup points.
That attitude shift, evident in that race out West, has carried itself through Martinsville and Texas and every race in between. Post-race comments like the ones Junior made are no longer a surprise; not only is he gracious in defeat, he made it a point to build confidence for a team that was less than confident he would even be around next season a few months ago. The team continues to respond Junior's upbeat attitude, recognizing that plans for a new contract do nothing to alter his dedication to an old contract already in place.
However, Junior wasn't done making waves. In the midst of media interviews after bringing his damaged car in for good, No. 5 crew chief Alan Gustafson came in with a bizarre request for Junior - his driver had left the track in a huff after the crash, and he needed someone to drive the damaged car. Despite the prospect of helping a team that wrecked him, it took no more than two seconds for Junior to say yes. Gaining one position for a team competing against him in the point standings, Junior actually did a favor to the very man that cost him a shot at the race.
Junior didn't hesitate to speak when asked why.
"Because they asked me," he said. "I have some friends on that team – and I’ll always jump at a chance to climb into someone else’s car to see what it’s like. They used to do that all the time back in the day. You’d have relief drivers getting into someone’s car almost every week, so it was kinda like a step back into NASCAR history or something. Old school! It was cool."
"Kyle’s a good guy," Junior continued, unafraid to express his true opinion on a man he was supposed to be roughing up outside the track by immaturity's standards. "He tries really hard and he was getting his race together and getting in the top three (before the wreck)."
Those actions showed vintage Junior coming into his own - making decisions without really caring what anyone else said or thought. While the man who wrecked him failed to take responsibility for his actions, Dale, Jr. picked up the team he left behind - while at the same time upholding the confidence of his own bunch of guys. It was truly a remarkable achievement, one that you wouldn't see from very many men in the sport.
Of course, as each day goes by the deadline for Dale, Jr.'s contract renewal at D.E.I. ticks ever closer to midnight. Well, there couldn't have been a bigger advertisement to Teresa that her stepson is more than ready to take control of an organization. Dale, Jr. spent the week asserting himself; at the bargaining table, on the track, in the garage, with the media. After a decade of battling his own self-esteem in public, it appears more than ever that Junior is very much in control of his own destiny.
His father's gotta be proud.
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