- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Euphoria dripped from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s every word on the evening of Feb. 23, 2014. Every hug and every smile were supercharged by the electric joy of victory in NASCAR's most celebrated event, the Daytona 500. Few had ever seen Earnhardt so happy. And most who had had forgotten what it looked like.
In many ways Daytona is the location -- and the 500 the event -- that defines why Earnhardt is what he is. And maybe even who he is. Daytona was the setting for many of Earnhardt's boyhood dreams. It was his Disney World, the land where magic could become reality. And on that February day he outran the rain and the field, and realized again those dreams -- and just how distinctly they can replace years of frustration and failure.
Five weeks after that victory, immersed in the meat of the yearlong Sprint Cup grind, he sat in a conference room at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and pondered what that victory -- and more specifically what his reaction to it -- really was.
Its definition is multi-layered. It is professional. And it is personal.
"It definitely makes me feel better about missed opportunities, and not having run as well as I've wanted to the past several years," Earnhardt told ESPN.com. "It makes up for those down years."
It is present. And it is past. And it is future.
"It makes me feel better about myself, and better about sticking it out and staying with the course and staying dedicated, and trying to stay motivated and trying hard inside and outside the car," he continued. "I feel like it just made me a lot more comfortable with my place in the sport and my accomplishments."
Earnhardt is not just a Daytona 500 champion. He is a multiple-Daytona 500 champion, a claim just 10 other men can make. His father was not one of them.
"You put pressure on yourself to do a good job, and when you do a good job -- especially in the biggest race of the year -- it's a good feeling, man," he continued. "Because down the road you can hang your hat on it, like, 'I did that, and I'm proud of that.' And even five weeks later or two years later or 10 years later, you'll be reminded of that moment through all kinds of different situations and scenarios.
"I'll be invited to dinners and events at Daytona for years after I'm done driving because I'm one of the guys that won that race. Won it twice. So it'll be awesome to be reminded and be part of those ceremonies and be reminded of that throughout the rest of my life."
But what if that's it? What if Earnhardt's ultimate legend is two-time Daytona 500 champion? For true fulfillment, must he win a title?
"Yes. To be fulfilled, yes," he said. "We could kid each other and I could tell you, 'No, I don't.' But yes, I need to be a Cup champion. I don't win the Cup championship [and] I didn't realize my potential in myself, and my belief in myself.
"If I don't win a championship it's the ship that went down in sight of land. That'd be difficult to live with. So yes, unfulfilled would be a way to characterize it.
"There's drivers that don't win championships. It wouldn't haunt me. But if I had to think about it, it wouldn't be an entirely positive thing to think about. There's other things I could be proud of and other things in life I want to accomplish beyond winning championships. But to fulfill the chapter in my life that concerns my driving career, certainly winning championships is what I want to do."
The road to this moment and this reflection was long and winding, a trudge through deep emotional valleys. In recent years the concept of winning was distant, let alone the thought of any championship.
The down years he mentioned were very low. His was slow. He made mental mistakes. He was concerned he would never resurface competitively, maybe just fade into oblivion as so many drivers have before him. But crew chief Steve Letarte had the perfect disposition to disarm Earnhardt's insecurities.
Earnhardt is an athlete who thrives off of his team's belief in his commitment and ability. Letarte assembled a team that made Earnhardt believe in their belief. He was hard on them. He tested them. He had to know they believed.
"When you know the people you're working with believe in you, it makes everything real easy -- it gives you so much confidence," he said. "That's probably the one thing that moves the confidence needle the most, is when you're in that hauler and you know those guys believe in you."
Earnhardt stresses it's not the team's problem when doubt of its support creeps into his brain.
"I'm probably harder on them than I should be about that, or I'm probably more insecure about that than I should be. I know I am," he said. "So it took a long time for me to see it or admit it."
Earnhardt knows now that they believed in him from the beginning. They didn't pressure him. They didn't walk into the first meeting with a stacked resume and a demand for excellence. Instead they said simply: Let's build good cars and be accountable to one another, and see what happens.
Earnhardt knew this but wouldn't necessarily accept it yet. He wasn't sure that, when in private and unbeknownst to him, they weren't grumbling about how difficult it was to negotiate the inevitable peripheral drama that comes with guiding NASCAR's most popular man.
In truth, they had no expectations.
"I didn't know if they believed in me or not. It took us a while," he said. "Every driver doesn't do something every week that makes the team go, 'Man! That guy's the man!' It doesn't happen every week. But every six weeks or every 12 weeks, you might do something where they go, 'That was badass, man!' We would do things like that every once in a while where they'd go, 'Damn! You can do it! That was pretty good!'
"And after about a year, I started feeling that belief from them, and they'd wrap their arms around me and go, 'Man, we're really gonna do this. We're gonna go out there and this s---'s gonna happen!' Then more and more often those moments happen, where they're like, 'Man! I cant believe you did that! You held onto that lead!'"
That encouragement broke down the walls of a broken man, and rebuilt a confident one. That's what the Daytona 500 is -- the manifestation of three years of tearing down in the effort to build back up.
In 2012, it was a project based on a hunch. In 2013, it did not produce victory, but it soared nonetheless. Earnhardt was relevant competitively again. And in 2014, he is not just relevant, he is a threat to win every weekend. It is a completely different mindset. It is not, Can we? It is, We will. It is, We have. It is, The information is here somewhere and the cohesion is here and now, we just need to dig in and find it. Together.
"It's a different attitude, and you hold onto that," Earnhardt said. "That can be easily stripped away if you get beat up, and go make a bunch of mistakes or a spoke falls out of the wheel, somebody leaves the team or something happens.
"Right now, though, we got a really good group and we're really feeding off of all that energy amongst all of us."