Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver, but on Thursday he admitted that when he first arrived at Hendrick Motorsports nearly a decade ago, he “felt like I didn’t fit in.”
That may seem strange for one of the sport’s biggest icons, but only in recent seasons has Earnhardt felt like he was a valuable contributor to the impressive legacy of motorsports success at HMS.
“For the longest time I felt like the odd man out, or I just felt like I didn’t fit in. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like a piece in the puzzle,” Earnhardt said Thursday during the final day of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
Surrounded by champions
Earnhardt, 41, said much of that feeling likely stemmed from being surrounded by drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who were well-established multi-time Sprint Cup Series champions when Earnhardt joined the organization.
“I just didn’t feel like it was working. We couldn’t get our team going. We couldn’t find success or stability. We all went through that time, we all were there,” Earnhardt said. “Now, everything’s working and it’s very exciting to be able to sit down, sit at the table with all those guys and have won races and talk about what you feel about the car and be able to answer those questions competently.
“For the longest time I never wanted to push myself to involve myself in any of the conversations because I wasn’t accomplishing my goals on Sunday. What did I have to say? I had to get my crap together first.”
I’d be a fool to turn all this off right now ... When I feel like I’ve flat-lined or feel like I am part of the problem, then I guess I’ll start thinking about it
Dale Earnhardt Jr. on retirement
Meeting the expectations
Earnhardt’s move to Hendrick to start the 2008 season was greeted with much fanfare and expectation – in large part because the sport’s most popular driver was pairing with one of its most successful teams.
There were difficult struggles in the first few seasons, however.
Dale has so matured. He’s just stepped right up to the plate throughout the organization.
He won once in 2008 and finished 12th in the series standings but it would be nearly four years to the day until he would again visit Victory Lane in a Cup series points-paying race. Earnhardt finished 25th in points in 2009 and 21st in 2010 – the worst two-year stretch of his Cup series career.
HMS and Earnhardt signed a contract extension in the fall of 2011and since then Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team found great gains, with help from his pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte, who has since moved to the NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast booth.
Rick Hendrick praises Dale Jr.'s maturity
The past two seasons, Earnhardt has won a combined seven races – including his second Daytona 500 victory – and vastly improved his averaging start and finishing position.
“Dale has so matured. He has fought through everything and I’ve seen the biggest change in leadership in Dale Earnhardt that I’ve seen the past 24 months,” said Hendrick team owner Rick Hendrick. “He’s just stepped right up to the plate throughout the organization.”
Hendrick said it was difficult for Earnhardt when he would compare himself to Gordon and Johnson and all their championships.
“You feel like you don’t measure up, right? He’s gotten much more comfortable with that. He and Jimmie have become close friends. That’s just Dale. He worries about what people think,” Hendrick said.
“But he’s gotten so comfortable in his skin right now. I’ve never seen him so happy as he is right now – just enjoying life. I think Amy (Reimann, Earnhardt’s fiancé) deserves a lot of that credit. He’s happy and he’s confident.”
Earnhardt said at his age in this sport, retirement talk is probably a necessity, but he has never felt better at HMS than he has the past two seasons.
“I’m getting married soon. A lot of good things are happening for me professionally, both on and off the race track. I’m having fun inside the car,” he said. “The relationship I built with Steve Letarte I feel really stabilized my career.
“I don’t want to be here too long and I don’t want to leave too early. You want to feel the timing is just right. You want it to be your decision. You don’t want to be knocked out by health issues or fired. You want to go out on your terms.”
Does he have a timetable?
“I can’t even consider when it might be looking into the future because things are going so well. I’d be a fool to turn all this off right now,” he said. “Every year now we keep getting better and we’re racing better and we’re winning and I feel like I’ve got to be here for the next step.
“When I feel like I’ve flat-lined or feel like I am part of the problem, then I guess I’ll start thinking about it.”
Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.