RICHMOND, Va.—After an extended “vacation,” it’s almost time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get back to the serious work of trying to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
By winning the season-opening Daytona 500 this year, Earnhardt effectively removed the pressure of qualifying for the Chase, as other drivers fought for victories to claim their spots.
It’s safe to say that one by-product of NASCAR’s increased emphasis on race victories has been what is arguably the most enjoyable season of Earnhardt’s career.
“Yes, we’ve sort of been on a bit of a holiday since the Daytona 500, and I’ve enjoyed that,” Earnhardt said on Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s been a fun year. The cars have been great. The cars have been fast. The team has been a great experience. We have a lot of good things to look forward to—obviously.
“Hopefully, everything goes good. We keep hearing from all of our fans how ‘This is the year, this is the year. We are going to do it this year. We’re going to win that Championship.’ That’s what we want, and we’d love to be able to be the champion at the end of the year. We’re about to find out.”
With what he termed “a backpack full of pressure” off his shoulders, Earnhardt has won three times this year. Tied for most in the series, during the farewell tour for crew chief Steve Letarte, who will migrate to the NBC Sports television booth next year.
“Having that comfort of knowing we were locked in made the rest of the season so enjoyable,” Earnhardt acknowledged. “It took a lot of pressure off, and really allowed us to just go race and have fun. So it’s about to get serious. It is about to get real again, where you are going to have to buckle down and make every lap, every corner count, whether it is practice, or whatever.
“Not that you haven’t been doing that, (but) we haven’t been riding around with a backpack full of pressure and the tension like you typically do in the old format. That pressure and tension is about to climb back on the back of this team, and all the other teams when that Chase starts. Some guys carry it very well, and some guys may struggle.”
Winning the Daytona 500, the crown jewel of stock car racing, has always been an invaluable addition to a racer’s resume. Listening to Earnhardt, however, tells us just how valuable his second victory in the Great American Race has been to the No. 88 team this year.