The move to Hendrick brought increased expectations, as he was moving to the team of (then) two-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time title winner Jeff Gordon.
He won his first race with the team, the exhibition Budweiser Shootout (now the Sprint Unlimited), and then in a points race at Michigan later that year. But in the following two years he finished 25th and 21st in the Sprint Cup Series points standings.
"We weren't running good," Junior said Tuesday. "We were struggling. I think people underestimated how much I care about performance. I don't think people realized how much winning mattered to me.
"When you look at the critics and you look at their comments, aside from people saying I was overrated, they would always say I didn't have killer instinct, I didn't have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship, I didn't want it bad enough."
He didn't let the overrated comments get to him.. The comments about his desire? Notsomuch.
"I never was bothered by being called 'overrated' because it's such a broad term," he continued. "When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did, because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death. I would do anything for NASCAR. I'd do anything for the health of the sport. I'd sacrifice anything for it."
The best thing that he can do for NASCAR is win like he did Sunday night. With the No. 3 sitting on the pole for its first race back in the Cup series since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death and Junior's win after a six-hour rain delay, it was about the best on-track outcome for the sanctioning body that didn't involve a certain female driver in a green-colored car.
There's also no questioning the genuine emotion that Junior showed in the hours after his car crossed the finish line first. It comes from those two years of struggles during the four-year winless streak he went through. And the belief that his final year with crew chief Steve Letarte could be his best yet.
"It's such a long ways from where we are now," Junior said. "Ran so good when we first came into the sport. Then to go through that, get so far away from being competitive, then to come all the way back to where we are now, I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am and thankful I am ... that Rick Hendrick didn't give up on me, that they believed in me, were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work, regardless of what anybody said, regardless of what the critics were saying, when everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again.
"I've been pretty vindicated, but I'm in a good place now. I got my priorities in better shape. I feel, like I said, we're embarking on a season that could be something really special for me. Whether we win the championship or not remains to be seen obviously. But I had one of my greatest years last year, and I think we can top that this season."
- - - - - - -