There comes a price with being NASCAR’s most popular driver and most successful car owner. The pressure.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt it after joining powerful Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Owner Rick Hendrick felt it after adding Earnhardt to a shop that already included Sprint Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Not until Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 last Sunday — just his third win in 215 starts for Hendrick — did they feel the pressure was lifted.
“Dale had a lot of options when he was going to make a change . . . he wanted to come with us. I wanted him to come with us,” Hendrick said. “It was a lot of pressure, an awful lot of pressure, an awful lot of high expectations. We didn’t have the success that we thought we’d have.
“But we never gave up. I was as determined as ever. I told him that we would get it right, and we would do what we set out to do, and we were not going to stop. I felt like I let him down. He felt like he let me down. But we locked arms and said, ‘We’re going to figure it out.’’’
Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past 11 years, carried the burden of not only living up to the expectations of a team that has won 11 Sprint Cup championships in the past 19 years, but he also bore the weight of being the face of his sport.
“It’s not a weight when you’re able to deliver,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say you’re the face of the sport, and you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering.
“This win brings me a lot of joy. . . . I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did.”
Though Earnhardt projects a happy-go-lucky image off the track, the inability to win during the past few years ate at him.
“People underestimated how much I care about performance,” said Earnhardt, who owns 20 career Cup wins. “I don’t think people realized how much winning mattered to me. When you look at the critics and you look at their comments, aside from people saying I was overrated, they would always say I didn’t have killer instinct, I didn’t have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship, I didn’t want it bad enough.
“When people pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did, because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death. I would do anything for NASCAR. I’d do anything for the health of the sport. I’d sacrifice anything for it.”
Earnhardt’s second career Daytona 500 win may have given NASCAR a huge season-opening boost. Despite the six-hour rain delay and going against Winter Olympics coverage on NBC in primetime, the Daytona 500 peaked with a 6.7 rating and had 10.9 million viewers watching as Earnhardt outran former Cup champions Brad Keselowski and Gordon to the checkered flag.
“I think we turned on a lot of people on Sunday,” said Earnhardt, who made appearances on the David Letterman show and at ESPN before heading for this week’s race at Phoenix by way of Hollywood. “I heard people tell me they’re fans now. Never watched a race. Now they’re a NASCAR fan.”
Earnhardt compared the impact of his win to the memorable 1979 Daytona 500, which was highlighted by a postrace brawl between Cale Yarbrough and Bobby and Donnie Allison.
“It had kind of that feel, that ‘79 Daytona that was first, live flag-to-flag broadcast that really turned the world on to what we were doing through network television,” Earnhardt said. “My race might not have had that kind of impact, but it’s comparable.
“This race was destined to be that way. NASCAR made some changes to try to kick-start some energy and boost awareness and excitement in what our series can do. I think we got a great start to the year, for sure.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if Earnhardt made it two in a row this Sunday at Phoenix. Earnhardt posted back-to-back wins at Phoenix in 2003 and 2004 when only one Sprint Cup race was held there at the time. And he finished fifth fourth in the two races at Phoenix in 2013.