It’s hard to imagine Dale Earnhardt Jr. not fitting in.
As a 13-time recipient of the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award, beloved by fans and a star-studded symbol of stock car racing, Earnhardt is hardly the guy anyone would pinpoint as the one who wasn’t quite jelling with the group.
But there was a time when Earnhardt would sit down at the table with Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and his teammates then leave the meeting having made little contribution to the discussion.
“For the longest time, I felt like maybe I was the odd man out or I just didn’t fit in,” Earnhardt recalled at Charlotte Media Tour over the weekend. “For whatever reason, it just didn’t feel like I was a piece of the puzzle. We couldn’t get our team going, we couldn’t find success, I was unhappy.”
Happiness began to trickle in when Junior’s trips to Victory Lane increased. After one lone win in five seasons, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte came back with a roar in 2014, winning the season-opening Daytona 500 and making three more trips to Victory Lane that year. He followed suit last season, winning three races with new crew chief Greg Ives.
That’s when Junior’s mindset began to shift.
“I’m glad that we’re winning races and we’re like an asset to everybody there and that we’re a good team, and they’re excited to work on our cars and build our motors and all that stuff because we go to the track with a chance to win,” Earnhardt said.
As Earnhardt tallied more wins, he seemed to mature off the race track, too. He celebrated his 40th birthday with longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann by his side, whom he proposed to during their trip to Germany in 2015. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. of 2016 seems more settled, more confident than his old self.
It’s something even Rick Hendrick noticed.
“I think he enjoyed being young, and I think now that he’s older, he’s just now coming into maturity,” Hendrick said with a laugh. “I want him to continue to have fun.”
And when Earnhardt’s riding high, coming down seems tough, almost impossible. Despite his peers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart announcing their own retirements, Earnhardt’s improvement on the track makes it difficult to answer one of the biggest questions that confronts the 41-year-old driver: When will he hang up his fire suit for good?
“I don’t want to be here too long, [but]I don’t want to [retire]too early,” Earnhardt said. “ You want to feel like the time’s right.”
“To slow down this machine would take about a two-year plan. I will talk to Jeff and I’ll talk to Tony about how they went about that decision and structured it,” he added.
The day Earnhardt decides to step aside from racing is yet to be determined. But it doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
He has too much to say at the team meetings now.