DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes his electrifying victory in Sunday night’s Daytona 500 will finally put questions about his desire to rest.
“I think people have underestimated how much I care about performance and how much winning mattered to me,” Earnhardt said Tuesday, on a conference call with members of the national media – part of a continuing post-500 frenzy that has included stops in New York for late-night talk shows and Bristol, Conn., for ESPN purposes.
“When we weren’t running good and when we were struggling people were saying I was ‘overrated’ and didn’t have that ‘killer instinct’ – the guts to drive when I needed it,” said Earnhardt, whose previous Daytona 500 victory came in 2004. “They were saying that I didn’t want it bad enough.
“I was never bothered by being called ‘overrated’ because it was such a broad term. It was when people picked at [my] determination, drive and hunger that bothered me more than anything else. I grew up around this sport and I love it to death. I’d do anything for NASCAR, for the health of the sport. I’d sacrifice anything for it. And when you don’t run good, it makes you upset. It disappoints you.
“If you look at how happy I was winning after winning [Sunday’s] race, you know how bad I want to win – how much winning means to me – and now, no one can question my killer instinct, my drive, or whatever term they want to use.”
Jubilant in Victory Lane, Earnhardt entered the media center long after midnight on Sunday, with a loud “Woo-Hoo!” He understood that among his 20 career Sprint Cup victories, this one held special significance. It meant that he was back on top.
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver by fan vote for 11 years running, Earnhardt has three Sprint Cup victories since 2006. He finished 25th in points in 2009 and 21st in 2010. But he finished fifth last year, posting a career-high 22 top 10s, becoming a championship contender again.
“I’ve been pretty vindicated,” he said. “I’m in a good place now. I’ve got my priorities in better shape. I feel we’re embarking on a season that could be something really special.”
On Tuesday, he thanked everyone for sticking with him – not just the fans, many of whom have taken to his new Twitter account, @DaleJr – but his team owners and teammates. He says things finally have come full circle.
“I hope my fans are enjoying this win as much as I am,” he said, comparing his ardent supporters to those of long-suffering fans in other sports – even himself.
“I’m a fan of the Washington Redskins,” Earnhardt said. “They’re a storied franchise that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1991. [Their fans] face trials and tribulations in the tough years. Every offseason you look at the changes they’ve made. You hope they’re going to turn them around. Even if you don’t know much about their new coach, even if you question the changes they’ve made, you put your faith in them and believe in them because you want them to win. When that finally happens, like when they finally do win games and go to the playoffs, you celebrate it.”
Earnhardt said that thanks to the changes Letarte and his crew at Hendrick Motorsports have made on his Chevrolets, he sensed his team turning an important corner late last season.
“The cars I drove in the Chase [for the NASCAR Sprint Cup] were far superior to anything I’d ever driven out of [the Hendrick] shop,” he said. “We were building new cars. We had gained a lot of information and understanding in how to improve on our cars since the beginning of the year and were able to put all those additional features into one vehicle. It showed in our performance.
“At Homestead, we finished off the season with a strong car and that did wonders for our confidence. It showed with the way we’ve been able to take off at the beginning of this year. We have a great situation here. Our team is in perfect position to capitalize in our final year with [crew chief] Steve Letarte.”
Earnhardt said Sunday night’s racing, particularly after the 6-hour, 21-minute rain delay, was some of the most intense racing he’s ever been part of and is looking forward to viewing a replay.
“I cannot wait to watch it, and when I do, I’ll probably watch it three times in a row, back-to-back,” he said.
“I don’t know what was going on, but it was electric, man. I know it’s what NASCAR wants to bottle. It just felt so different than any other race I’ve ever been in. The intensity level was maximum and sustained. Drivers were really feeding off each other. It was really a weird kind of deal.”
Earnhardt believes Sunday’s rain delay might have been a blessing in disguise. He thinks the way the product translated on television during prime time could have a positive impact on the sport – not unlike when the Daytona 500 was first aired live on TV in 1979.
“I think we turned on a lot of people, Sunday,” he said.
Earnhardt said he took the lengthy weather delay in stride – in the comfort of his motor home – and was able to relax, given assurances that racing would resume sometime shortly after 8 p.m.
“I put on a pair of sweat pants, sat on my couch and ate candy,” he said. “I played with the dogs, talked with my girlfriend and ate some junk food – pretty much what I’d do on any Sunday I had off.”
With a place in the Chase all but secure one race into the season, Earnhardt didn’t even mention that his celebratory tour could be compromising his sleep or his preparation for this week’s race at Phoenix.
“This media tour is a great way to decompress,” he said. “I don’t know how I would have taken it in, having nothing to do with myself. This has given me the opportunity to celebrate my team, their efforts and give everyone credit. I’m enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only win a huge race but celebrate it and talk to the world about it.”