Commentary

Junior sad to see season ending

Updated: November 9, 2011, 5:37 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A woman in a No. 88 shirt couldn't wait to tell Dale Earnhardt Jr. how lucky she was to be in town for a wedding at the same time he was appearing at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and reminded him that a couple of years ago he signed her husband's arm.

Another fan said this was the "greatest day in my life." Another asked if Earnhardt would sign her mom's birthday card "because she loves you as much as [anyone], probably more." Another simply wanted to take a picture with Earnhardt when given the opportunity to ask a question.

A 90-year-old woman just sat there beaming with joy.

[+] EnlargeEarnhardt
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. remains popular with fans wherever he goes.

A few things struck me about this scene, which followed a question and answer session with Brad Keselowski in which not one person asked for a picture or autograph and the focus was primarily around racing.

First, these fans didn't seem to care that Earnhardt hasn't won a Sprint Cup race since June 16, 2008. Not one asked about the winless streak that has reached 127 races or if Earnhardt thought he could break it over the season's final two races, at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

We learned more about Earnhardt playing in basketball and softball leagues -- had no idea, by the way -- than we did about what he does on the track.

These people were just happy to be in the presence of their favorite driver on this Tuesday afternoon.

Second, Earnhardt was happy to be there.

That's more than he could say this time a year ago. Then, Earnhardt couldn't wait for the season to be over, to get away from all the questions about why he missed the Chase for the second straight year and whether he would have yet another change in crew chiefs.

Now he wishes the season could continue so he could build on what in many ways has been an amazing turnaround from 21st to seventh in points.

"I've been really happy and having fun," Earnhardt said in another room of NASCAR's shrine, away from the crowd. "I have enjoyed racing and I don't particularly look forward to the end of the year.

"There have been seasons where I was ready for it to come to an end, but this is not one of those."

While these fans were hopeful Earnhardt would turn things around after team owner Rick Hendrick reshuffled his crew chiefs last offseason to pair NASCAR's most popular driver with Steve Letarte, Earmhardt was skeptical.

No, he was downright nervous, which makes sense when you understand why.

"I was worried of nothing changing," Earnhardt said. "I was under a lot of pressure to perform and do better. I was worried. What if it doesn't happen? What am I going to do?"

Now Earnhardt has a chance to be the highest ranked driver in Hendrick's all-star stable. He's already guaranteed to finish ahead of Mark Martin, who didn't make the Chase. He's two points ahead of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and 24 behind five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't think for a moment that Earnhardt isn't aware of this.

"I would be foolish if I didn't think there was some competitiveness between us as drivers in our group," Earnhardt said. "You want the other teams around you pushing you to do more and do better.

"As a team, as a group, the higher finishing team definitely takes some pride in that."

And as cool as Earnhardt admitted that would be, he jokingly added, "I'd probably get credit for how I finished but blamed for how they finished in some damn, weird way."

He's probably right. There are those now who probably want to say putting Earnhardt in the same building as Johnson is why the No. 48 team won't win a sixth consecutive title.

It's the same people who blamed him for taking Martin from a five-win, second-place team in 2009 to a winless, non-Chase team in 2010 because Hendrick shuffled some of the 52-year-old driver's personnel to Earnhardt.

Such is life when you're under the intense spotlight that follows Earnhardt everywhere.

And for the record, all of you that have asked whether Hendrick will move crew chief Chad Knaus from Johnson to Earnhardt so Earnhardt can win a title?

"Really?" Earnhardt said when told that speculation actually existed. "Yeah, I don't see that happening, man. Those guys have won five championships. I don't see them splitting up anytime soon."

Earnhardt doesn't want to split from Letarte anytime soon, either. You can hear it in his voice that his relationship with Gordon's former crew chief is the best of his career.

"I've enjoyed working with Steve a lot more than I can express," Earnhardt said.

[+] EnlargeSteve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesCrew chief Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have had some success this season, but a victory still eludes them.

He tells Hendrick that at every opportunity, too.

This goes beyond the 12 top-10s that are one shy of what Earnhardt had the past two seasons combined. It goes beyond how Letarte is constantly working to improve the car in situations Earnhardt hadn't experienced.

Earnhardt has formed a bond with Letarte. He respects him and has fun working with him. He actually turned down an opportunity to hang out at his Charlotte nightclub after the Pit Crew Challenge in May to drive Letarte and Letarte's son home.

"I've had success before and I've enjoyed working with other people before, but we haven't argued really once, not all year long," said Earnhardt, whose disagreements with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. made the two seem like a divorced couple. "Nothing like I used to. I don't think I've been able to go through a year where I've been able to say that."

It often takes a year or two for drivers to develop that kind of relationship with a crew chief. That Earnhardt and Letarte hit on it right away is reason to believe they can take another step forward in performance in 2012, pick up a few wins and possibly be in position for Earnhardt to win the title that his dad won seven times.

Earnhardt doesn't have to be reminded of being in his dad's shadow here. The black No. 3 that Dale Earnhardt drove to six of his seven titles sat only about 25 yards away on "Glory Road."

But these fans didn't seem concerned that Earnhardt hasn't achieved his father's greatness. One did ask if Earnhardt feels like his father is watching over him, which Earnhardt answered with, "You kind of carry that with you all the time."

Maybe one day Earnhardt will have a spot in the Hall next to his father. A title would help, but you could make a case for him with two Nationwide Series titles, a Daytona 500 win among his 18 Cup victories and eight consecutive most-popular driver awards that surely will grow.

He'd probably garner a lot more support today than Kyle Busch, who at the moment arguably is the best pure talent in the sport as well as the most controversial.

He definitely would garner more support on this day with these fans, who already consider him a Hall of Famer.

Earnhardt isn't worried about Busch's public relation problems or the Hall of Fame. He just wants to get better and have more seasons when he doesn't want the racing to end.

"Having seen some improvement," Earnhardt said, "having seen how close we came to winning a few races this year, how consistently we're running, overall the statistics, my position in points, just being relevant and visible has been a big deal to me."

He was a big deal to this crowd before then.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter