Earnhardt enjoying life under the radar

Sure, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. still can't go into a Wal-Mart without getting mobbed by rabid race fans, but after a year of inconsistent finishes life in the spotlight has dimmed a bit for Earnhardt. Last season, Earnhardt was mired in a slump winning...

Sure, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. still can't go into a Wal-Mart without getting mobbed by rabid race fans, but after a year of inconsistent finishes life in the spotlight has dimmed a bit for Earnhardt. Last season, Earnhardt was mired in a slump winning just one race and failing to make the Chase for the Championship.

While Earnhardt will always be one of the sports superstars there were only so many weekends the media could wax rhapsodic about how poorly the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolet was running. Fans tired of hearing it, media tired of writing it, and Earnhardt got tired of answering it.

By the final stretch of the season, he was nothing more than a notebook item. For a driver who has lived in the glare of stardom since his father's death it was actually a welcome break.

"It's considerably more low-key that it has been in the past," commented Earnhardt. "The first four years in the series was pretty wide open. Last year sort of took a lot of spotlight off us and put it on some other drivers that were coming into the series. In a sense, it's kind of fine with me. At the same time you want to be as successful as you can in the sport. We definitely want to get back to our form on the race track. I think everything else will take care of itself."

Earnhardt seems more relaxed this year with some of the pressure off his back. Team 8 is running much better this season. They have earned two top- 10's and one top-15 in four starts and if not for a pit road speeding penalty at Vegas they were on the mark for another top ten (they ended up 27th).

"We're definitely better than we were last year," commented Earnhardt. "I feel like I'm a pretty good judge of character. I think we're better than we were in '04. The competition is different and better. But my cars are better and the way they're better is to me there's a lot more confidence going in to building them. We're putting cars together now with a lot more confidence in the shop.

"That just shows in craftsman ship and how good they look when they roll off the trailer. There's a lot of confidence in what Tony Jr. (Eury, crew chief) is doing to the cars. The calls he makes from the pit box - there's a lot more confidence in his mannerisms and how he goes about the race weekend."

For Earnhardt it's all about having gained perspective and matured as a driver. He is decidedly more low-key than three years ago, and has am aura of confidence now of being comfortable in his own skin.

"You get smarter," Earnhardt explained. "I've always drove as hard as I could drive. I may not have always made the smartest choices on the race track. Not that those mistakes are behind me. You just get a little bit smarter. Every year you season as a driver. When you first come in you run as hard as you can and bounce off a lot of stuff. Hopefully as you get more races under your belt, you bounce off less stuff. I pride myself in not being bad on my equipment. I pride myself in finishing a race where all they really got to do is pressure wash the car for the next one. It's important to me that when the race is over it was evident to them (my team) that I drove as hard as I could ever lap. That's it."

Earnhardt's goals for 2006 are pretty obvious. He is ready for his breakthrough year. A year when he can win races, stay within the cushion of the top ten and find himself after the fall Richmond race in a position to compete for his first NASCAR Nextel Cup series title.

A third place run last weekend in Atlanta boosted him four positions to seventh in series standings.

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Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt