The most famous face in NASCAR hasn't always been the most successful. He knows that. He feels the pressure to succeed. But as Dale Earnhardt Jr. basks in the glory of his second Daytona 500 victory—a win he's called the biggest of his career—he's finally starting to see the dark cloud that's hovered over his head move elsewhere.
Pressure, the legacy of his father and Junior's Daytona victory were among the numerous subjects Earnhardt and Rachel Nichols discussed during their sit-down interview Friday evening on CNN's Unguarded.
The interview comes less than a week after Earnhardt captured the 2014 Daytona 500, his victory coming just before the midnight hour, as a torrential downpour nearly pushed NASCAR's premier race into Monday. It was a fitting, almost storybook redemptive moment for Earnhardt, whose 57-race winless streak ended once he crossed the start-finish line.
And that was far from the first dry spell for Earnhardt. From 2007-13, he won a total of two races. During that time, he left his father's company to join Hendrick Motorsports and saw doubts from commentators and fans alike about his driving ability. Asked why this Daytona win—he previously won the race in 2004—meant more than the previous one, Earnhardt didn't hold back discussing his internal struggle:
Something about everything that's happened since then. The goods, the bads, the ups and downs, all the trials and dark depths of struggles, there was a time in 2009, 2010, where people were giving up on me. The sport was giving up on me. I felt like I was losing, you know, my grasp on being competitive. When I won in 2004, I was young the whole moment just flew by. And I didn't realize what it was worth, you know. So now I get it.
Daytona obviously takes a special place at the Earnhardt family dinner table. Dale Jr.'s father, Dale, was a seven-time series champion but went decades without winning the Daytona 500 before finally getting over the hump in 1998. It was also the track Dale Sr. died at in 2001, crashing into the wall while trying to block for Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip.
As it would be for anyone, that scene remains imprinted on Dale Jr.'s brain. Any time the sport makes its twice-yearly trip to Daytona, the memory of No. 3 looms large. Only this season did NASCAR finally allow a driver to race with Earnhardt Sr.'s number in the Sprint Cup Series. But while Earnhardt Jr.'s first Daytona win was a tearjerker entirely enveloped by his father's memory, the 39-year-old seems to have found closure.
"You know, that's a memory that, you know, I can't help but not think about it," Earnhardt said. "I think about it. And I'm comfortable thinking about it. I'm comfortable with how things went down. I believe that things happen for a reason. And that was his deal. That was what was his time."
Sitting down with Nichols, Dale Jr. also opened up about his relationship with his father in ways he rarely has before. The picture he paints is familiar. The successful father, so consumed by his craft that he sometimes neglects what matters most. The precocious son, socially awkward and quiet on the surface but inside dreaming of being just like his father.
At certain points, Dale Sr.'s namesake was so quiet that it created fractures within their relationship:
I was scared to ride the go-cart or drive the go-cart for the first time or ride the bike for the first time. You know, I definitely didn't react the way my dad expected me to react in those situations. And we had a disconnected relationship for so many years because of my shyness and my, you know, I was you know, very quiet and not very outgoing.
Like most fathers and their sons, they eventually found a common ground. Unsurprisingly, that came on the track. Earnhardt Jr. described the first moment his father suggested he and his brother Kerry turn to racing, calling it one of the first times his father had interest in what his sons were doing. As Dale Jr. began having success on the track, they only grew closer.
"Our relationship, I couldn't make heads or tails of our relationship until I started driving," Earnhardt said. "And especially when I got into the Nationwide car and won races, we clicked. For the first time when I would talk to him, we would have conversations."
When the topic shifted from father-son, it went right into the next generation of Earnhardt racing. Karsyn Elledge, the niece of Earnhardt and daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has made a name for herself at just 13 as an up-and-coming mini-series star. Earnhardt Jr. has been at the forefront of helping women into the NASCAR world, most notably with Danica Patrick racing in the Nationwide Series under his JR Racing imprint.
When asked about the criticism Patrick faces—specifically about derogatory comments made by Richard Petty—Earnhardt said he feels it's unfair how men within the sport view women drivers.
"Even if that's your feeling, you know, why would you voice it?" Earnhardt said. "She goes by a different set of rules. And it's really unfortunate."
As for Junior himself, he seems to be finally writing his own rules. His contract with Hendrick will keep him under the sport's most powerful umbrella through 2017, and it's clear he has a grasp at what he's good at and what would be better left handled by others.
"I feel really, really good," Earnhardt said. "I feel great about what I'm doing and the decisions I'm making, the direction I'm headed, the people I'm spending my time with. It all makes a lot of sense right now."
If last Sunday's win was any indication, it's likely fans won't have to go 57 more races before Earnhardt's next win.
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