I wrote the book IN THE RED in 2011 in the midst of what had been a rough on-track stretch for Dale Earnhardt Jr. When things weren't going so well, it was easy to forget the attitude that was so prominent in his early years in the Cup Series. While IN THE RED was the story of the tragic 2001 season, I was taken aback by the attitude Dale Jr. and the rest of the No. 8 Budweiser team showed in those early years.
While digging through stacks and stacks of my notepads and vast media coverage from 2001, I continually marvelled at the strength and willpower from Junior to overcome his father's death, despite being constantly inundated by constant reminders of his loss. With his uncle Tony Eury Sr. and cousin Tony Jr., the three had a swagger that was infectious. At the Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway races in the Bud era, Junior was supremely self-assured and aggressive. He always believed the safest way to avoid the giant crashes was to be in the lead or as close as possible. The result was a number of dominating performances.
That confidence and swagger was missing in recent years. He seemed to race with a strange kind of timidity. It was as if he was barely having fun.
Yet, his Daytona 500 performance last month - grabbing the race by the scruff of the neck - showed the return of an attitude that is incredibly encouraging for Junior fans across the land. He once told Rolling Stone magazine that he felt like Superman in the car, able to lift 300 pounds. Superman is back.
Yet, I was struck moreso by the emergence of Junior's personality. His unbridled joy with the victory, his very apparent affection and appreciation of his team. This was something even those of us on the inside rarely saw in the early days. Junior's inherent shyness meant those kind of emotional moments were rare.
I was also shocked when he was clearly excited about a week of media appearances as the Daytona 500 winner. While I was coordinating media appearances for him during the Bud years, he was reticent to do media appearances that took him out of his comfort zone. It took several years of polite cajoling to get him to agree to make an appearance on the Tonight Show. Despite the fact he was very good in that format, he was always extremely anxious beforehand.
On his first Late Show with David Letterman appearance - after his 500 win in 2004 - he neither saw nor met Dave, and was asked to do donuts in the street in a trick Corvette owned by one of the staff. He managed to do well on air, but was nervous as hell about possibly bending a wheel on the curb or worse yet crashing someone's prized Corvette. He was even hesitant to purposely beat up a tiny, generic rental car by squeezing it into a too-small parking spot. (We also didn't meet Lindsey Lohan, who was in the next dressing room that night. We did, however, hear a lot of crying, screaming and arguing eminating from her room.) This year, we saw a much more relaxed (and a much better dressed) man alongside Dave.
After several days of media appearances in '04, he was exhausted as we were being driven to the airport to take NASCAR's jet back to reality. On the drive, his cell phone rang with a call from Matt Kenseth to congratulate him on his win.
"Dude, if you ever have a chance to win the 500," Junior told his good friend, "just finish second because they'll wear your ass out doing all of this media."
I could never tell how much was a joke and how much was his real feelings in that comment.
Now, with a huge assist from his crew chief, Steve Letarte, his girlfriend Amy and team owner Rick Hendrick, his personality and confidence are bursting on and off the track. While I'm thrilled with his racing sucess so far in 2014, I'm much more happy to see him as a more content man that's much more comfortable in his skin.
It's a great thing to see.