Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finds himself in a different position this weekend as for the first time he’s not guaranteed s starting spot in the All-Star event, but the driver is looking at the big picture, and the view is just fine. Not only is he nearly virtually guaranteed to make the big race through the fan vote provided he can bring his No. 88 home on the lead lap in the Shootout Saturday night (though he has to be considered a favorite to race his way in without the vote), but he’s got it all in perspective.
“You just never know what is going to happen, so I’m not taking anything for granted,” Earnhardt said on Friday. “There are other variables about finishing on the lead lap and not tearing up your racecar and things like that. You just never know what is going to happen.”
Earnhardt brings up a good point here. All it could take to send him home early on Saturday night is a mistake by any of the drivers on the track, because to win the fan vote ticket to the All-Star event, the top vote-getter must have a car in raceable condition at the end of the Shootout. Should something happen to Earnhardt’s equipment or should another car tangle with his, the vote option will go away leaving Earnhardt out of the feature event for the first time in his career. And should that happen, Earnhardt isn’t going to lose sleep over it.
But do not mistake that for Earnhardt not caring. He does. It’s just that there’s enough pressure in the sport without adding missing an event that doesn’t pay any points. Earnhardt talked about his first All-Star race in 2000, which he won as a Cup rookie, and how the closing laps were “panic mode to take the lead, go, go, go…just really frantic inside the car” While it worked out for Earnhardt in the end, he’s more mature now, and panic mode isn’t any to race on a weekly basis. Sure it can win you races, but it can also put you in the wall, and Earnhardt has learned when to race with his head and not so much with his heart on his sleeve.
Besides, there’s more at stake than there was a decade ago. As a rookie, Earnhardt, Jr. was winning races and had all the time in the world ahead of him. Now, he’s older, wiser…but not as successful on the racetrack, and he knows that. He’s building a relationship with a new crew chief, one he finally respects. He’s learning to adjust to a racecar he looked vastly uncomfortable driving, and he’s finding a consistency that hasn’t been there in a long, long time. He knows there’s more at stake for his team this week than perhaps there is for his shopmate, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson is a five-time champion. He wins races with a regularity that lulls fans into a stupor. He’s got nothing to prove and can afford to take chances with his setup. Earnhardt doesn’t have that luxury.
Instead, he knows the overreaching goal it to put the No. 88 in Victory Lane in points-paying races. To be relevant in today’s Cup world. He’s slowly doing that; sitting fourth in Sprint Cup points and contending for top finishes. Now it’s time to progress a step and contend for wins, and to that end, the All-Star event gains importance to the team. “I’m looking forward to getting the car on the track and working on the car a little bit mainly in preparation for next week’s race,” Earnhardt, Jr. said on Friday. “This is a good opportunity to try some things and work on the car and try to give ourselves the best opportunity to maximize our performance for next weekend…we don’t have the ability to do a ton of testing, not as much as we used to several years ago so these opportunities, you’ve really got to snatch them up and try to run through some things that have been on your mind.”
Earnhardt added that the team is also looking to hit on some things to help them win this weekend as well, but his words reflect a veteran’s maturity. Gone is the rookie’s panic mode, replaced with a true sense of the big picture. A million dollars is a nice prize, but points wins are what lead to championships, something that has eluded Earnhardt throughout his career. So points wins are what he’ll look for to measure his season by.
Earnhardt won’t speculate on when those wins will come, because he feels it doesn’t serve a purpose. “I’m not going to sit here and go, ‘yeah, guys, I think a win is two weeks away or I should win next week.’ I’m just not going to be that arrogant,” Earnhardt says. “Look, if we keep running good it will happen, hopefully it will happen and we will give ourselves some opportunities.”
That’s the maturity of a driver who’s known wild success, but also understands that this sport will had you success and humility in short order, and he’s had his share of the latter as well. In recent years, there’s been more humility than success, truth be told. Rest assured that Earnhardt, Jr. knows that. He understands the history of the sport perhaps better than any of his Cup contemporaries, and he understands about relevance. “On the race track, I wouldn’t say I’ve been too relevant…you run off a quick list as to who is going to be competitive today, you look at those guys now and it’s Kyle (Busch) or Jimmie or Carl (Edwards) and (Kevin) Harvick…that’s what I would consider being relevant, just being competitive.” Earnhardt knows he’s not quite there on the track, though off it he takes popularity to a whole new level.
But now, at 36, Earnhardt, Jr. is a different racer than the kid who won the All-Star race so many years ago. In some ways, he’s better. He’s more careful (sometimes too much so), more mature (no more panic mode), more cognizant of the big picture (next week is just as important as this one). He’s in great position to make the Chase, but he’s not naïve about the battle he’ll face if he’s to win a championship. It won’t be easy, but this is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all grown up-no longer the kid in panic mode, he’s the veteran looking at much bigger picture. And he’s cautiously optimistic about the view.
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