Just like with the economy, there are ways to track the recovery of NASCAR's most marketed commodity. We're two races into the season, and so far Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Junior Nation are exhibiting what may be dubbed "heavily cautious optimism." We've been down this "is this the year Junior turns it around?" road so many times before we can tell you every dip, crack and bend on the way. But for the sake of argument, let's just speculate if there's anything different this time around.
Certainly, the most obvious measure of success is, well, success, and by that criteria, Junior's got a ways to go. He's got two finishes of 24th and 10th, and currently sits 17th in the standings. And for all the shoulda-coulda-wouldas that we can throw out there for Daytona ("if he hadn't cut a tire...!"), you can do that for everyone else, too.
A more subtle clue is the tenor of Earnhardt's conversations in-race, and so far, all's been quite positive on that front. New crew chief Steve Letarte is one set of pom-poms away from being a full-on cheerleader, and the way he's fired up Earnhardt may be the key to the season. Earnhardt said as much of Letarte's cheerleading in post-Phoenix conversation with Landmark Newspapers' Dustin Long:
"He does an awesome job at [motivation]," Earnhardt said. "That helps me. It helps me so much to have him pushing me. This is one race out of a long, long season, but this is the first time in a long time that I didn't feel like I was out on an island, you know, out there by myself. That's no hack on anybody I worked with in the past. It's almost like he’s riding in the car with you, punching you in the shoulder, 'Come on, don't overdrive it. Dig! Dig!' I appreciate that. It makes me want to work. It makes me want to do good."
We've long thought that many of Earnhardt's problems lay in that short space between his ears, and that a little confidence could go a long way. But it's not just the mental aspect of Earnhardt's game that needs boosting; it's the in-race adjustment as well. Earnhardt has proven that he can run well at the start of a race or in qualifying; what he needs to demonstrate now is that he can adjust to changing track conditions over time and convey to his crew chief what he needs.
Veteran drivers will say that the key to a successful season is minimizing damage on bad weeks; when you have a car that's 15th-place quality, you don't want to lose your temper, screw it up and finish 30th. (See: Juan Pablo Montoya.) The key for Earnhardt is making sure that he keeps ahead of the midpack-wrecks so that those 15th-place outings don't turn into DNFs.
It's a long season, a long way to go. But there's so much optimism surrounding NASCAR right about now; it's only fair that Junior Nation gets to share in a bit of the love.