Earnhardt Jr understands it's about performance

Undoubtedly, Dale Earnhardt Jr is one of the most popular drivers on the Winston Cup series. Prior to the start of the 2002 season, many picked him to be a lead contender for the championship race. Twenty four races into the season, Jr and his...

Undoubtedly, Dale Earnhardt Jr is one of the most popular drivers on the Winston Cup series. Prior to the start of the 2002 season, many picked him to be a lead contender for the championship race.

Twenty four races into the season, Jr and his DEI team are fighting to break the top ten in points, and have struggled to find the success that the team had previously experienced.

Earnhardt views communication problems on the team as a key component in his struggles.

"We're really understanding now that the communication is probably the most valuable thing that we have; that overrides having great notes and a great setup from last year and all that good stuff. We just really worked hard the last two weeks to talk to each other about how the car's driving. It's really a lot harder I think than I ever imagined as far as getting the cars to handle good and drive good," said the North Carolina native.

Jr's average finishes since winning in the spring race at Talladega has been far below not only the expectations of the critics, but of the driver and team as well.

"We were fifth in the points, won Talladega, looked like we were going to have a shot at putting ourselves up there all year, been in the top five, top 10, and had that real bad crash, real hard hit in California, and it took me as a driver about two or three weeks to get out from under that."

In addition to communication, and recovering form hard contact Jr expressed that the demands of his own popularity have been a distraction. Although it is something that he welcomes, he recognizes that it takes his focus off his job at the track. A problem that he looks towards his late father to serve as a needed role model.

"We go to all these appearances and all these people show up and I never get used to it. My Dad used to be able to walk through here and blurt everything out and shut it all down and not be bothered by it. There are other drivers who can do the same thing. Their focus seems to be able to stay 100 percent on the car and stuff. If I walk from the car to the bus and back I've done forgot everything I just did. Because there are so many people hollering your name."

Understanding the problems and making the necessary changes in how the team is approaching the remainder of the season. Earnhardt's performance over the last two races has improved in both his qualifying efforts, and his on track performance. The two times Busch Grand National champion made it clear that the improvements are not a fluke. It is a re-dedication to himself and the team to develop a new work ethic and attitude. He has worked his way back into the front to demonstrate that this team has what it takes to be contenders.

"What I didn't do was buckle down harder. When things got tougher I didn't try harder. And I felt like ---all right, I'm going to pace myself and I'm going to keep this pace as far as my workload (is concerned), my work ethic all year long,' and you can't. And this stretch of 20 races, when a lot of people get burned out and the relentless activities at the track and whatnot that you've got to deal with, they don't change. You've just got to work harder. And I didn't try to work harder. I thought (that) how I was and how I felt about my job and I was doing my part was the right attitude, when apparently it wasn't. These guys, they step up. I feel like I didn't step up".

Regardless of the finishing order, Earnhardt is, and will remain one of the most popular drivers on the NASCAR circuit. Respecting the value of that popularity, Jr understands that continued growth of his career is based in performance and not legacy.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt