As Junior grows up, his nation longs for the pastJunior Nation has been waiting for more than two years for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to go to victory lane
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. knows it. His fans are frustrated. They're impatient. Some are burnt out.
"They're waiting," he says. "When's it gonna be? Will it be this year?"
Junior Nation – not to mention the driver himself – has been waiting two years for a victory. Earnhardt last won at Michigan in June … of 2008. Since then, his popularity has ebbed, according to the well-respected Q Score service used to measure the appeal of fan favorites. A drop of one point isn't considered major. A drop of five points is. Since Earnhardt's last victory, his Q score has dropped from 35 to 28. In fact, he's no longer the second-most popular race car driver on that list, behind Richard Petty. Junior has now been passed by Danica Patrick, his employee, who scores a 29.
Since his six-win season in 2004, Earnhardt has won just three times in the last 197 Cup races. The move in 2008 to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports was expected to be the decision that would vault Earnhardt back to prominence and eventually to the top of the racing world. Instead, it's only highlighted his struggles, especially last season when he finished 25th in the standings while his teammates finished first, second and third.
While it's frustrating for fans, the hope that Hendrick's dominance will rub off on Earnhardt remains, so Junior Nation continues to wait.
"I have to take myself away from the TV," says James Waldock, who has 17 posters of Junior lining the walls of Maloney's, his Albuquerque, N.M., bar. "Otherwise I start throwing things around. Lately I haven't been watching."
Fans spread the blame around, from crew chief Lance McGrew to the alleged favoritism of teammate Jimmie Johnson and to, of course, Junior himself. But one strain of thought seems to come through all the complaints about the drought: he has to be more aggressive.
"He's a little too timid, a little too nice," says David Ruiz, 48, from Ormond Beach, Fla.
In other words, fans want Dale Jr. to be a little more like Dale Sr.
At the very least, they want Junior to be more the spitfire he was in his younger days. They love Junior the gentleman, but they would like a bit more of their own frustration to show up in their hero. They want to know why he isn't, well, angry.
"Maybe he doesn't feel the same passion for racing as he used to," wonders Waldock.
So it's both a wait for action (wins) and a wait for a reaction (aggravation when he doesn't win). It's a wait for the Dale Jr. of his 20s instead of the man now halfway through his 30s. It's a wait not only for the boy to turn into the man his father was, but a wait for the man to turn back into the boy he used to be.
That doesn't seem to be the direction Junior himself is headed. In a conversation on Wednesday, Earnhardt said he gets as bent as ever after a bad race, but he also says he's happier as a 35-year-old than he ever was in his 20s.
"Your 30s are easy," he said after meeting with a group of National Guard officers at the Daytona Beach band shell. "Most people don't like getting old. I don't like getting old. But you hit 30, and there's a little relief. You feel a gratitude for being past those years."
That might come as a surprise. Earnhardt's 30s have brought a downturn in his performance on the track and much more responsibility as a team owner off it. He knows now just how difficult it is to win, and win consistently. He even knows his Hall of Fame candidacy, which seemed strong five years ago, is no longer on sure footing. Yet, he's not only comfortable with his life today, but mellower.
"I was nice to people," he said, "but I had such a disregard for direction. I just wanted to have fun. There was no, 'What do I want to do five years from now?' Everything was annoying. Everything pissed you off, except racing."
Even parts of racing bothered Junior. He didn't spend much time breaking down the minutiae of each race. Now he says his crew chief, Lance McGrew, asks about every little detail.
"He picks my brain," Earnhardt explained. "I'm surprised at his curiosity, and his level of detail. Before, I'd want to hit the hot points, the important points. But Lance wants to know about everything else."
In other words, Junior is embracing the parts of his life that many fans think are literally slowing him down. But he sees no disconnect. The extra time he's taking to soak up his off-track life and study his on-track performance is an investment that he believes will pay off. Time may feel like it's running out to fans, but for Junior it's time well spent.
"You start to realize how quickly life goes," he says. "I'm halfway through [my racing career] now – at best. You appreciate things more."
As he sits inside a private room explaining where he is in life, a long line of fans winds outside the door. They're still supportive, even though nobody seems to believe winning is right around the corner. No, the only thing around the corner is Dale Jr. himself, the son of the man they still worship – now a man himself.
Most of the people in line probably don't realize that Dale Earnhardt Sr. won six of his seven Winston Cup championships after he turned 35. By the time his 35th birthday rolled around, Senior had won 17 races. Junior won 18 before he turned 34.
But Dale Sr. didn't have anywhere near the expectations that his son does. His own father was a successful driver, but not a mythical legend and a martyr.
In comparison, Earnhardt Jr.'s every move is an exercise in anticipation, every race seen as opportunity by Junior Nation for their driver to rise again. That will certainly be the case Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, a track where Junior is always expected to be up front.
If Earnhardt doesn't take the checkered flag, Junior Nation will surely be disappointed. But they probably should keep in mind that Senior's fans had to wait a while, too.