DOVER, Del. – There were no pretenses at Dover International Speedway on Friday. As driver after driver strolled into the infield media center – one fresh off the first Sprint Cup victory of his career; another in the midst of a month-long, top-five streak that makes him NASCAR's hottest driver; another going for his fourth straight championship – the first question they fielded, without exception, went something like this:
"What do you think about Dale Jr.?"
As always, everything involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. garners enough attention to make Paris Hilton jealous. The difference is she's drawn to the spotlight like a shad fly; Junior never asked for this.
But he gets it, and rightfully so, because as Martin Truex Jr. put it, "there are more people involved in the sport because of Dale Jr. than anyone else."
Some will argue that Truex is wrong – that more people are involved in NASCAR because of Dale Earnhardt Sr., not Dale Jr. And they may be right. But if that faction flocked to NASCAR because of the late legend, they remain there because of his son.
Despite Junior's struggles, Earnhardt Nation remains a loud and proud bunch. There's a definite safety in numbers aspect to that, which allows them to remain loyal to a driver who's provided them one victory celebration in three years.
In searching for an excuse, Junior fans had to find a scapegoat, and they did in crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Now he's gone, replaced by Lance McGrew, who inherits the most pressure-packed job in NASCAR – one that's every bit as demanding as managing the New York Yankees or coaching Notre Dame football.
"If Junior doesn't run well, [McGrew is] going to be the problem," said Kyle Busch, who was taking a jab at Earnhardt Jr., while at the same time speaking the truth. "You know, it's never Junior; it's always the crew chief."
The irony is if we were to rewind the tape to a year and a half ago when Junior made the decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports, we'd find that this was the risk everyone said he was taking. There were to be no more excuses, just Junior and his ability. That's it.
What Junior understood then and still does today is that excuses have a short shelf life; that when all anyone has are stats to look at, his place in history will be on him, not who sat on top of his pit box.
"Eventually, the only person that'll have to answer to my success is me," Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. "Whether that's today, from here on forward, I don't know. But eventually I'm going to be the one who has to answer to the fact of how much did I live up to my father's name. How much did I live up to his wins and everything that he accomplished. How much did I live up to everyone else's expectations.
"Obviously, when you put yourself at Hendrick Motorsports, you're in the best equipment and you should win races. And if you don't, that really sort of makes for a hard argument that you had any business being here in the first place."
And so it is again. Just Junior and his ability. No more excuses. Not now.
At 34, with 10 years of Cup experience on his résumé, he's entering what will be the defining stage of his career. And there are two ways it can go. Either he'll continue on a winding path that a decade from now will have him showing up to the racetrack as a field filler – one of those drivers who sticks around because he loves what he does and because his name carries enough weight with sponsors – or he'll begin to live up to the expectations the NASCAR world has placed upon him.
Whichever way he goes, Junior is acutely aware that his legacy depends on what he does next. He obviously wants to win, but he'll live if he doesn't. He has to. The question is, will everyone else let him?