CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's hard to imagine Dale Earnhardt Jr. not fitting in.
As a 13-time recipient of the NMPA 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 on Thursday. "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.
"I just never wanted to push myself to or involve myself in too much of any of the conversation because I was not accomplishing my goals on Sunday. So, what do I got to say? I've got to get my crap together first before I can come to the table with any kind of new ideas or direction."
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. "That's all you want as a mechanic or engine builder -- put your motor in the guy that's got a shot. So I'm glad we're finally at the level with the company."
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. "Maybe I shouldn't even have said that and it's going to come back to bite me, but I think he's just all of a sudden, he's planning a future with his wife -- he's comfortable. Then to win and know that he can go out there and win any race, any time, he's having fun. And you know what, I want him to stay that way. 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?
For Earnhardt, it's a delicate balance.
"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.
"(Gordon and Stewart) felt like the time was right. And hopefully I'm in the same position. I've said before, that you want it to be your decision. You don't want to be fired out of the sport. You want it to be on your terms."
Earnhardt's own terms deem that the retirement process also be steady, well thought-out -- he wants to avoid saying "what if?" when the curtain does eventually fall.
"I'd be a fool to turn this off right now," Earnhardt said. "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.
"But I can't even imagine when that would be because things are going so well ... We've got a job to do. Every year we keep getting better, we're racing better, we're winning. I feel like I've got to be here in that next step.
"If it flat lines, or I feel like I've flat lined or I feel like I'm part of the problem or I'm holding the team back, then we've got to start thinking about it. But everything's going in the right direction right now."
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.