Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally said what needed to be said, that it took guts to do what he did.
He could have stayed in his comfort zone, played out his career with Dale Earnhardt Inc., where no one would dare question him or his judgment or just about anything he did or said. That's how it is when your last name is on the door. No one questions the boss's son.
So yeah, it would have been easier to stay at DEI, where equipment failures and the like would have been to blame for Junior's failure to win races, to win championships, to live up to the legend of his father.
But he didn't.
Instead, he traded the comfort and familiarity of DEI for Hendrick Motorsports, where he'll walk a tight-wire without a safety net. Fail there, and he'll fall hard on the concrete, bloodied by his own miss-steps.
"It's sort of refreshing to not have that safety net, you know?," Earnhardt Jr. said Tuesday. "I've always talked about trying to get credibility and people to respect you and whatnot, and by putting yourself out on a limb here, it's definitely hopefully going to get me some of that, especially if we can perform and get the job done that everybody thinks we should get done, and I think we will."
You hear that? Behind that laid-back, awe-shucks exterior is a man who chose to put the weight of the NASCAR world – and no, that's no an overstatement – on his shoulders, which should make any sport's fan smile.
We hear it all the time, how athletes want to go where they can win a championship. And we believe them. Usually it's a once-great player who's on the backside of his career, chasing the ring before the sun finally sets.
Junior's situation is different. He's 33, in the prime of his career.
But the real pressure comes from the fact that he's not going to a team that is one player away from finally beating an arch nemesis. Hendrick Motorsports is already at the top of the food chain. They don't need Junior. They've proven they can win, which only adds to the pressure on Earnhardt, because unlike in stick and ball sports, he won't have the comfort of relying on his teammates to help him get that elusive ring. His teammates are his competition.
This talk about "oneness" inside the Hendrick garage is great, but come Sunday there's still only one winner; come November, there's still only going to be one champion. And if it's Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, then where does that leave Junior?
Right now, he's in the new-kid-in-school phase where he's feeling out his surroundings, and they him. Though it may sound odd considering his stature in the sport, Junior has the same insecurities as the rest of us would about being the new guy.
He's wondering if his new teammates like him; if they're glad he's here; and if they think he's good enough.
Eventually that'll fade away, like that new car smell. And when it does, and DEI is just a line on his resume, it'll be time for Junior to turn all those hopes he had before the move – the wins, the championships – into reality.
It'll be scary, but nothing compared to making the decision to leave DEI in the first place.
"It took a lot of guts to do it, so I'm pretty proud of being able to just do it, just to do that," Earnhardt said of the move to Hendrick. "I could have popped out or went another direction, but I went in the best direction and I took the risk to put my career and my credibility on the line to work with a company that has won a lot of races."
That, more than anything, should make Junior Nation grow even larger.
- Hendrick Motorsports