Coming off last weekend’s victory at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks to maintain momentum at Kansas Speedway, site of Saturday’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400.
What he’s already found is peace of mind.
Winning relieves the pressure in NASCAR. The trip to Victory Lane all but assured Earnhardt a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
“As soon as (I) crossed the finish line and was going around Turn 1 and 2 and down the back straightaway, that was probably the sole thought in my mind,” Earnhardt said.
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He led 67 of the 188 laps and emerged from what was essentially a single-file parade over the final two dozen laps, winning just a couple of days after his late father’s birthday on one of his favorite tracks for the first time since 2004.
All of that made for an emotional day, and a more relaxed Earnhardt.
“It was just a huge weight off our shoulders, just so much relief to be able to know that we’re … locked in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “The best part about it is you come into this race and the one after with so much less stress.
“You don’t have to worry about points. You don’t have to worry about when you’re going to win and answer questions about when you are going to win. You don’t have to worry about a speck of doubt within the team or morale within the team. You can just go out and race and have fun.”
With that thought, Earnhardt drifted back to a simpler time, reminiscing about his training-ground days at Myrtle Beach Speedway. They raced to win and couldn’t wait for the 100-lap feature. But no points, little expectation, no pressure — “all that stuff can sort of zap the enjoyment out of it a little bit,” he said.
Earnhardt, 40, feels more joy today than perhaps at any time in his career. Winning is a major source — he has five victories in the last two seasons after winning four races in the previous nine — but not the only one.
He has expanded his business ventures, opening an eatery at Douglas airport in Charlotte, N.C. Earnhardt was on hand for the ribbon-cutting there Wednesday.
“You get closer and closer to the day when you won’t be in the race car anymore,” Earnhardt said. “Not only do I need things to keep me busy or keep me excited and motivated to get out of bed every day, you want to love what you do.”
He’s also embraced social media, joining Twitter the night he won last year’s Daytona 500 and talking directly to his fans through his account @DaleJr. Last month, he tweeted photos of himself dancing on the beach with girlfriend Amy Reimann. She missed last week’s race but is expected to be at Kansas Speedway this weekend.
But the relationship that has largely defined his racing career is the one with his father, one of the biggest personalities in the sport’s history. Dale Earnhardt was the Intimidator and the Man in Black. No driver was more aggressive.
That wasn’t Dale Jr.’s persona as a young racer. But there they were on the track together at Daytona in 2001, when Dale Sr. slammed into the final turn of the final lap and was killed.
The elder Earnhardt’s No. 3 logo gear remains a big seller throughout the circuit, and when it comes to current fan favorites, nobody compares to Dale Jr. Last December, he was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the 12th straight year.
His father’s memory remains with Earnhardt Jr., every day, in every race. He wonders what his father would have thought of his latest business ventures, his victory at Talladega.
“Everything you do, you wonder what he would think of it — what his opinion would be,” Earnhardt said. “It’s always in the back of your mind, and you never really sort of break free or escape it.
“I know he wouldn’t be proud of everything I’ve done ever since he passed away. But for the most part, I feel like he would be pretty happy. That’s the best you can do.”