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Junior carries the weight of his sport with class

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There are plenty of reasons for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to feel sorry for himself this week. About having to answer the questions regarding his struggles on the track, the absence of a victory going on three years now and, inevitably, requests to rehash memories of his late father, who died 10 years ago Friday.

Yet, when pushed and prodded and pushed again, Junior stands strong – taking full responsibility for his lagging performance, apologizing to his crew members for having to put up with the scrutiny and answering every question about his father with an understanding that people just want to know what he thinks about the passing of a legend.

"You have heard me say it before and I am going to say it again: This is the strongest set of shoulders in motorsports," Earnhardt's teammate Mark Martin said. "And he gracefully carries the incredible weight and under the incredible circumstances. … I wouldn't want to be him. But he does well with it."

The massive amount of attention and the out-of-this-world expectations placed on Junior exist because of his last name. But strip it away and what you'll find is an extremely likable, down-to-earth guy who just wants to go racing. There's nothing prima donna-like about Earnhardt, nothing that screams entitlement, which probably speaks to the way his father raised him – to make it on his own, which is exactly where Junior finds himself today.

The crutch that is Hendrick Motorsports' support – there has yet to be magic in that. Neither is there in bringing in yet another new crew chief. Proof of this comes in the form of a 93-race winless streak and two straight years of finishing 21st or worse in the standings.

Those results aren't on Rick Hendrick. He's proven he can supply a winner. They're not on former crew chief Lance McGrew, either. The streak was already 33 races old by the time he showed up.

No, the common denominator through the entire freefall is Junior, and he knows it.

"I never, ever put the responsibility on anybody else. I never doubted Lance or my team," Junior said. "I know what I've accomplished in the past. I know what I've been able to do. I know what I can do. Things changed. Something about how I'm working with the [Car of Tomorrow] and how I'm working as a driver hasn't been productive, and we got to figure out what that means."

For his part, new crew chief Steve Letarte is requiring Earnhardt to show up 30 minutes before practice and hang around afterward for a debrief. Both are new concepts for Junior, who's had a mostly hands-off role in the past.

Will working closer with Letarte be beneficial? Can Earnhardt figure out what his issue is with the Car of Tomorrow? These are questions not even Junior can answer. When he talks about the upcoming season, he uses phrases like, "Hopefully that has a direct effect on my performance," and, "If we can turn things around … "

Despite the outward uncertainty, Junior insists he doesn't doubt himself. But how could he not? You don't go from competing for a championship to winning just three times in six years and not take a hit to your confidence. You don't watch your teammates finish 1-2-3 in the standings (as they did in 2009) while you wind up 25th and not wonder, "What's wrong with me?" And it certainly can't help to be reminded every day that the popularity of an entire sport ebbs and flows with your every move, which it does.

"Some people in the sport don't want to think that that's all it takes," Jeff Gordon said of the correlation between Junior winning and NASCAR's popularity, "but sometimes that's all it takes."

All the money in the world can't prepare you for that kind of pressure; it can't buy you the patience to handle it with grace. Yet somehow, through all the crappy results, all the questions about them, the rehashing of his father's death, the scrutiny, the expectations, the microscope, Dale Earnhardt Jr. maintains his cool.

This is the hand he's been dealt today. And just as he wasn't bragging about the pocket aces he had a few years back, he's not griping about the 2-4 combo he's holding now. It is what it is. No use complaining about what he can't control.