Earnhardt happy to have performance to match popularity
LAS VEGAS -- Hendrick Motorsports already has a driver nicknamed “Five-Time” in Jimmie Johnson, and another known as “Four-Time” in Jeff Gordon. After Thursday, though, Dale Earnhardt Jr. figures he might have both those multiple-time Sprint Cup champions beat.
“I wonder if Jimmie and Jeff will call me ‘Ten-Time’ now,” Earnhardt said after receiving his 10th consecutive Most Popular Driver award. “I’m kind of hoping I get me a nickname.”
"... Each time you win it, it means a little bit more."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He might have a point, given that he’s now tied with “Awesome” Bill Elliott as the driver who has received the award the most times in a row -- although he still has some work left to catch Elliott’s overall record of 16. Fans cast more than 934,000 votes for this year’s award, which was backed by the National Motorsports Press Association. In order of finish, the other nine finalists were Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte.
But once again, it was Earnhardt who took home the trophy at Thursday’s Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon, held at the Encore Theatre in Wynn Las Vegas. “I am completely humbled and honored to accept this,” he said in a short speech. It was Earnhardt’s lone turn in the spotlight this Champions Week, given that he finished 12th in final Sprint Cup points after sitting out two races with concussion symptoms, and only the top 10 make remarks during Friday night’s formal awards ceremony.
“I tell you, it’s real hard to get up there and express your emotions and tell people what it means to you when you win it repeatedly,” Earnhardt said afterward. “It gets tougher to show people and tell people how much it means to you. Because each time you win it, it means a little bit more. Words don’t do it justice to spell out what it really means to you. Getting up there on the stage to speak doesn’t really seem to measure it well enough.”
Earnhardt first claimed the award in 2003, after winning two races and finishing third in final points for Dale Earnhardt Inc. After that he endured some difficult seasons, most notably his first two campaigns with Hendrick, when he finished 25th and 21st for an organization that was winning championships with other drivers. Those results made it tough for him to trek to Champions Week to accept another Most Popular Driver award. The last two years, though, he’s had production on the race track to match his popularity.
“When we were not running really well, and we’ve had some really bad years, it was really, really hard to accept it. It’s hard to accept any kind of pat on the back when you’re not performing the way you want to perform, when the performance is the most important thing,” said Earnhardt, who won once this year and was in the thick of the title hunt until crashes and concussions scuttled his Chase.
“If you don’t have it, it was real tough to come out here and accept that award. Almost a bit of a shameful feeling, a bit of embarrassment to it. But when we run like we did [this past] year, it makes me feel proud to come out here and acknowledge and talk to the fans and tell them how I felt about the award. And I know they’re looking forward to what we can do next year, hoping we can be as competitive and take that next step.”
Earnhardt believes fans respond to his honesty, although he acknowledges his family history plays a role in his popularity. Another victory next year, and he’ll snap the tie with Elliott for most consecutive awards. But Earnhardt never takes it for granted, pointing out that Danica Patrick could present stiff competition when she begins her full-time Sprint Cup career next season, and understanding that other drivers present and future are candidates to potentially end his run.
“Danica is a great example of popularity and recognition,” he said. “But I look at guys like Tony Stewart, and even Brad [Keselowski] coming along and making a name for himself. You never know who might walk through the door tomorrow and turn the sport upside down and really ignite the fan base and really connect with the fan base. You just never know when that person could walk though the door. That could happen tomorrow.”
In the meantime, Earnhardt still chases a more elusive bigger prize -- a Sprint Cup title of his own. His performance this past season raised hopes that it might one day become a reality. At 38, he feels like he has plenty of time left to try and complete that quest.
“I think drivers have the ability to be fast and be competitive well into their late 40s, even,” he said. “So I don’t feel like the window of opportunity is closing in. I look at other sports, and … especially in football, those guys are fortunate if they can stay healthy through a span of 10 years. I think in our sport, we’re really fortunate to still be productive late in our careers. Like Mark Martin -- as old as he is, he’s still one of the fastest guys, one of the best qualifiers in the sport, one of the best competitors, one of the fastest pure speed guys on the circuit. I feel like if … I apply myself, I should be able to remain competitive and even be better in the future.”
Should that happen, Earnhardt might one day claim that big trophy, and be ensured of giving a speech at the banquet on Friday night. And in the process, he might earn another nickname -- One-Time.
“That,” he said, “would be awesome.”