NASCAR’s most popular driver, several years in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. once said he couldn’t see himself racing past the age of 40. This October Earnhardt will turn 39 and according to that earlier prediction should be starting to look at retiring from NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. However, that statement was made during some dark days in Earnhardt’s career.
Prior to last season, Earnhardt was in the midst of a winless slump. Despite racing for one of the top teams in NASCAR, with top equipment, Earnhardt seemed to struggle at every track; Victory Lane wasn’t even close. It seemed that indeed if that trend continued Earnhardt could retire once the age of 40 was reached.
Then came 2012.
Earnhardt broke his winless streak midway through the season. Prior to that he and his Hendrick Motorsports team seemed to be a changed team, scoring top five and top ten finishes nearly every week. After the win, Earnhardt found himself atop the points. The end of his championship hopes came after a concussion suffered during a test in August at Kansas Speedway. The injury forced him to miss two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and took him out of contention.
Despite that however, after a chance to look back over last season and in fact the past two seasons, Earnhardt has changed his tune when it comes to retiring at the age of 40.
“Absolutely,” Earnhardt said last week during the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “You know I really didn’t know about five years ago, I really didn’t know how I felt about all that and I was sort of in limbo on what I thought about what the end of my career looked like. But these past two years have. .. You want things to go like they’ve gone the last two years. We’re getting better, me and Steve (crew chief Steve LeTarte) and I are getting better. We had an even better season last year. We’re hoping this year we’re going in that same trajectory. So that turns around your entire thinking, everything does a 180.”
Earnhardt said he is entering the 2013 season with a brand new attitude; one that has already been evident even before the season gets underway.
“I couldn’t wait to go to the test this year, I wanted to be there till the very last day,” Earnhardt said. “I could have stayed a fourth, a fifth day you know and just run laps. Because just driving laps around Daytona to me is what I’m supposed to do, what I want to do. Just having that opportunity to go test at Daytona or Charlotte or go to Nashville for a couple days is exciting. Man I used to never like that stuff and you took it for granted; every year was going to be followed by the next. We’re going to have a racecar to run every year. “
One facet of the 2013 Sprint Cup season Earnhardt will have to get used to, like all his fellow drivers, is the new 2013 racecar known as the Gen 6.
“It’s really going to take some time to understand the new car, exactly where it sort of fits and how it fits me,” Earnhardt said. “I thought that was a good analogy about taking the suit off the rack. I didn’t think the COT was a very good fit for me I struggled with the car trying you couldn’t overdrive the car at all even a half a car length into the corner and the thing would get pissed off at you and it was just such an annoying thing to deal with every lap trying to get that car to go around the corner having to drive in this little window of grip was really difficult and I have a tendency to really overdrive the cars at times and get into the corner too hard and I think the old car you could do that because you had the valence, if you over traveled the car it just ground more valence off you didn’t drag a splitter across the racetrack.”
“This car we have today still has the splitter but I think the rest of the car is definitely a step back toward the old original car we used to have,” he added. “I think that’s going to benefit me in certain areas and other areas I’ll still have to understand and learn, there will be new things about this car, new things that it does that you’ll have to tailor yourself to and understand I’m certain that I’ll have to have an open mind towards a lot of things about the car that I might not fall in love with, but I think as a whole the car is really exciting.”
One loose end Earnhardt needs to wrap up prior to the season starting is finding sponsors for the No. 88 Chevy. According to team owner Rick Hendrick there are still several races that have opportunities for sponsorship. However, Hendrick said those races are at the end of the season and he isn’t worried about finding sponsors. Earnhardt doesn’t seem worried about finding sponsors, or even getting paid for that matter.
“What Rick wants to pay me is up to Rick, I’m going to work here regardless of what he pays me and I’m pretty sure he knows that,” Earnhardt said chuckling. “I don’t think there will be any kind of effect on our team one way or another. Obviously there will be, somewhere, in the chain some resource will have to be affected in some way shape or form and the more resources we have the more opportunities we have the better we feel we can be successful as a team so we want to definitely fill that void and not have to make any sacrifices.”
In the end whether it be sponsorship or getting used to a new car, thanks to the last two seasons Earnhardt expects to be dealing with it in NASCAR for years to come.
“You know when you run well you definitely enjoy it and want to do it,” Earnhardt said. “Want to be around it and you think about the next ten years, if they’re like this, this will be great.”
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