It could never be said that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not in the celebrity limelight. But certainly missing the Chase for the Nextel Cup last season allowed him to sidestep the glare for the last ten races of the 2005 season. This year he will not...
It could never be said that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not in the celebrity limelight. But certainly missing the Chase for the Nextel Cup last season allowed him to sidestep the glare for the last ten races of the 2005 season.
This year he will not be so lucky. In fact being out of the spotlight was pretty much the only good thing about missing the Chase last season for the 31-year-old Kannapolis, NC native.
"I got out of the spotlight for awhile so I could recharge my batteries," said Earnhardt.
As arguably the hottest cog in NASCAR's wheel, marketing people are rejoicing that Earnhardt has not only made the Chase but has a solid opportunity to vie for his first career Cup series title.
"I am as hungry as I need to be, I am hungry. I am going to give it everything I have got," Earnhardt said of his strategy for the last ten races.
But before the massive No. 8 Championship t-shirt sales can begin, Earnhardt and Team 8 have some work to do. While the perception of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated to the outside world may be that of a powerhouse team; mainly due to its late founders legendary status - that is really not the case.
DEI could almost be summed up as a single car team despite full time teammate Martin Truex, Jr. and part-timer Paul Menard. In the scheme of things, Truex and Menard aren't really adding much to assist the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team, in fact they are relying on Earnhardt to help them with information for them to run better as the veteran driver in that organization.
To win this championship Earnhardt is going to have to rely on sheer will and determination. While over the years, Earnhardt at times has not seemed singular in focus, maturity has been kind to him and he now sits in the best chance in his career to win his first title.
"I want to win a championship bad, and being in the Chase is the first big step in doing that," Earnhardt mused. "I'm honored to be in the Chase. I'm happy for my team, because they gave me such great effort all year. They deserve this. My fans deserve it. My sponsors deserve it. Everyone who stuck with us through last year deserves being a part of this Chase for the Championship, so I hope they soak it up, because I know I am."
The ghosts of championships lost may be the worse foe in his goal. In 2004, he was deemed the favorite to win the inaugural Chase for the Championship, Earnhardt led the Chase just once after New Hampshire. A 25-point penalty for use of foul language after his win at Talladega dropped him to third. The team was plagued by inconsistent finishes that finally saw them finish fifth overall.
This year he enters NHIS sixth in points but is the driver in the top ten with the worst average finish at this track. In 14 career starts, he has three top fives and six top-10's.
"It'd be nice to get a little redemption at New Hampshire this week," said Earnhardt. "We always run pretty good there, but never have enough to get a win. Last time we were there we were pretty decent, definitely a top-10 car, but the motor blew up. I feel like if we can get everything working together, we can end up in Victory Lane. We're taking the same car we just ran at Richmond. Tony (Eury) Jr. is cutting it up today (Monday), giving it a new right-rear quarterpanel, left-front fender and bumper cover. We found out the problem with the brakes right after the race Saturday night, and we're confident we'll do well with this car this weekend."
Earnhardt feels fairly inspired about his chances and is trying not to let the pressure influence his performance. He has a win at six of the 10 Chase racetracks, for a combined total of 11 victories.
"I try and feed off of my own motivations now and my motivation is to win the championship," Earnhardt said. "We have won a lot of races and done a lot of cool stuff and been a lot of cool places but I would like to win a championship and Tony, Jr. would too. I know we are going to have a lot of shots at it but we have to take everyone that we get and to make the best of it.
"We are going to work really hard when we are in that race car and around that race car to make that happen."
He may be the fan favorite to win the title but he is not the Vegas odd- makers best bet. Even Earnhardt himself admits that while there is no dark horse in this competition that a few guys stand out as the betting man's favorite.
"The 17 or the 48 are very strong," analyzed Earnhardt. "But there is no dark horse that is for sure, there is no sleeper. Everybody is very capable of winning the title. My chances, well I think like I said the 17 and the 48 are very good and the rest of it is about even."
Earnhardt had engine problems at New Hampshire in July and finished 43rd. In 2005, he grabbed a pair of top-10 finishes here. Despite his problems in the first NHIS race he still had the Fastest Green Flag Speed (125.478 mph) and was the Fastest Driver Late in a Run (125.070 mph) for the past two years according to NASCAR statistical services loop data.