News & Media

Caraviello: Earnhardt finds his comfort zone inside the 'fish tank'

October 12, 2011, David Caraviello,

NASCAR's premier division returns to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, a trip that automatically brings back memories of the most agonizing near-miss of the season. In the mind's eye, you can still see it: that No. 88 car charging through the final corners in that final lap, spectators rising in anticipation, delirium about to explode as an epic winless streak comes to and end -- and then the vehicle slowing off the last turn, other cars screaming by, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. coasting home to finish a deflating seventh.

* Final Laps: Earnhardt comes up empty at Charlotte | Reaction

Had he won? Oh, it would have been gleeful bedlam, of course, the masses celebrating the drought-buster right along with NASCAR's most popular driver, all of them throwing a party under the lights that would have gone on long into the night. No other driver can build up that kind of hope and expectation; no other drivers have fans that feel as crushed when he comes close to winning, but doesn't. Earnhardt has had many good runs this year, but that ranks among the best of them, but in the end it only extended a skid that now stands at 123 races since his last victory, at Michigan in the summer of 2008.

But that's the way it is with Earnhardt, for whom everything is magnified, something that's evident even by his weekly behind-the-hauler media sessions, for which some reporters often arrive almost a half-hour early to stake out prime positions among the grill, crash cart, or beverage cooler. Show up much later, and you risk being relegated to the back, where Earnhardt's voice is barely audible, and he appears a bobbing set of sunglasses amid a sea of people, much like he is when he runs the gauntlet of autograph-seekers on the way into the garage area each day.

Everyone automatically associates Earnhardt with pressure -- as in, the pressure he faces to live up to his last name, the pressure he feels racing for a 10-time championship organization like Hendrick Motorsports, the pressure to snap the streak. And some of that has to be there, to be certain, particularly given his presence in the Chase. But Earnhardt says pressure doesn't get to him as much as another force does, one that seems a touch ironic given his unparalleled levels of popularity and marketing appeal. You wouldn't expect an eight-time winner of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award and the sport's preeminent commercial force to feel a little uneasy with the spotlight, but Earnhardt does.

"I don't really let the pressure bother me too much. Attention bothers me, not pressure -- you know, just feeling like you're in the fish tank," he said last weekend at Kansas Speedway. "The pressure is not a big deal. I've been around this sport a long, long time, and I feel like I've got a good idea on what I'm doing. I feel comfortable doing what I'm doing and I haven't had many opportunities to race for championships. I'm sure that's a different situation that I'm not quite aware of. We were kind of close in 2004 and I didn't even realize it until it was over with, how kind of close we came."

Indeed, the season of that inaugural Chase was Earnhardt's best on the circuit, a campaign where he won six times, finished fifth in final points, and was in the championship mix right up until the final week. Back then, it seemed like something to expect every year from a driver showing all the signs of being at his competitive peak; no one could have anticipated that he'd have won only three more times since. But even then, he was only in the margins behind Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, needing breaks provided by others to have a real shot at the title. At the Cup Series level, at least, he's never faced the kind of make-or-break moment that Busch did then, that Johnson and Denny Hamlin did last year. How Earnhardt would react to the ultimate pressure this sport can exert, we still do not know.

Attention, though, is a given. Has been since he arrived from the now-Nationwide Series with great fanfare, on the heels of two consecutive championships, everyone counting down to "E-Day," the moment he would make his debut in NASCAR's premier series. It's rarely let up, through the loss his family suffered in 2001, through the breakup with Dale Earnhardt Inc., though his alliance with the circuit's best organization and the expectations that followed. And while joining Hendrick Motorsports brought with a certain pressure -- that word again -- to perform, strangely enough it also brought a certain level of comfort, given Earnhardt's close relationship with Rick Hendrick, all the friends and family members who have worked there, security about his future.

"This year has been good. We've been productive and showing some signs of life in my career a little bit. That's been a good feeling."


Crew chief Steve Letarte, who arrived this season with an upbeat approach that keeps Earnhardt motivated during races, certainly has helped (2011 results). Improvement on the race track -- Earnhardt was ninth leaving Kansas, after finishing 21st and 25th the past two years -- likely plays a part, as well. Until his driving days are over, Earnhardt will probably always be in the fish tank, looking out at all those faces pressed against the glass. But his present situation seems to make it more tolerable than it's ever been, despite all the expectations inherent to his organization.

"I can't really put my finger on a measurement, but it definitely was a lot more when I came into the sport the first time because we had come off the two championship years in the Nationwide Series, and people just wondered what we were capable of doing. And that was pretty hard," Earnhardt said. "And then not even a year later, my dad died and we just had a lot of people watching us and seeing what we would do there and how we would react. Ever since then it's eased up quite a bit. Ever since I've been running with Rick [Hendrick], it's been a more comfortable thing to deal with. And this year may be even the best when it comes to that."

Would he like to be running better? Sure. "I would like to be first. That would be the preferred position," he said. He's 43 points, a full race behind that spot at the moment, but he does have good tracks coming up in Charlotte, Talladega and Martinsville, and the early stages of this Chase have shown how susceptible the standings are to being turned on its head. The higher he climbs in points, of course, the more attention he'll receive, and the more uncomfortable life in the fish tank can become. And yet, Earnhardt is savvy. He understands his sport and his role in it, he reads his press clippings, and he gets that the attention and adulation come from the same reason he got in the race car in the first place. It all stems from a desire to see him win.

"My own expectations and my own ambition and what I want to achieve for myself sort of correlates with what my fans want out of me and what the media wants me to do," he said. "So that gets you a lot of attention when you don't do it, or you get close to doing it. But this year has been good. We've been productive and showing some signs of life in my career a little bit. That's been a good feeling. And everything that's went along with it this year has been really good."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Click below to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2011 highlights: