ATLANTA - Seven months ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on a folding chair in a makeshift tent just outside Daytona International Speedway, surrounded on all sides by media craning to hear him. His black Amp baseball cap pulled low and curled around his eyes, he spoke in barely audible monosyllables.
It was a tough scene to watch, Earnhardt giving away nothing but cliches about the tenth anniversary of his father's passing, his disappointing Hendrick years, his deeply uncertain future. You saw this scene, and you wouldn't be wrong in assuming that Earnhardt's best days were far, far in the past.
Amazing what a season in the top 10 will do for a guy. On Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Earnhardt was as relaxed as he's been all season, leaning back in one chair and casually throwing his arm over the back of another. He held the microphone rather than simply leaning forward and passively speaking into it, and he talked with the kind of self-effacing humor and self-awareness that you can only get when you've looked far deeper into yourself than any of your detractors, or fans, could imagine.
"I'm not content at all," Earnhardt said. "I feel like I've been given some really good opportunities there and just haven't been able to capitalize on it, haven't been able to go do the race track and get on the race track and go fast. This year things started to swing upward for me, and I started to feel we might be on the right track."
He credited new crew chief Steve Letarte, of course, but conceded that he gives himself "barely a passing grade" for his performance overall at Hendrick. Still, perhaps the relief of having his employment status locked up through the 2017 season is allowing him to breathe a little easier.
Making the Chase helps, too. "Relief is probably the right word because everybody expects you to make the Chase," he said. "If you don't make the Chase, you get that tag on you. You sort of get labeled when you miss the Chase. I just want to avoid being in that situation. I've made few mistakes and a few driver errors that I really wish I could have back now that I tried to tell myself not to make all year long."
Press conferences are, by and large, unremarkable affairs, with reporters asking questions to which they already know the answer ("How did your win make you feel?") and athletes/drivers offering up by-the-numbers unremarkable responses ("This is a great win for our sponsor and all the guys at the shop.") It's the rare press conference where a driver shows some character, some life. Earnhardt did just that on Friday, looking as casual as he has in a long time.
Sure, it could all change in a moment. Two bad finishes and he's potentially out of the Chase. One bad run in the Chase and he'll be forgotten in the hunt for the Cup. And no matter what he does, he'll draw fire and criticism. He's used to it, he's fine with it. (He also stays off Twitter and other social networks, which probably helps.)
But for now, Earnhardt has that rarest of looks to him: calm. Maybe being at ease will transfer into strong runs; maybe he'll just be the most contented high-single-digit driver in NASCAR. No way of knowing until they run the races.
Either way, it's a good time to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. For the moment.
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