- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. should have been relaxed as he sat in a director's chair outside of Cipriani, a posh restaurant in Grand Central Station. He'd just won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award for the fifth straight year and was hours from a vacation that will take him far away from the pressures that have engulfed his life the past year.
"Waaaaaay over the water," he said with a smile.
But Earnhardt wasn't relaxed. He squirmed as he answered questions about a season that saw him break ties with the company his father built and go winless for the first time since he began competing full time in the Nextel Cup Series in 2000.
He took offense when it was suggested that his new owner, Rick Hendrick, didn't expect him to win right away.
"Bull crap," Earnhardt said. "I'm expected to win every year I'm in this sport. I mean, I'm an Earnhardt. That's the way it is. I'm deeply disappointed in being winless last year. I'm shocked. That's why I want to race tomorrow.
"I don't want to be winless all through the offseason. I want to get one in there."
Earnhardt's father was a seven-time champion, winning his first title in only his second full season. By his eighth season, which his son just completed, he had two titles and 20 wins.
Junior has 17, which isn't bad. It's that goose egg beside season No. 8 that frustrates him.
"I'm pissed off we didn't win a race," he said. "That's going to bother me for a while. That bothers me every day. I think about it every day."
Earnhardt thinks about a lot of things these days. He's proud of the way he and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, handled negotiations that landed them at the organization that produced 16 wins this past season between two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
He's proud of the way he never slacked off late in the season when the tendency for many might have been to do just that.
"We put the puzzle together ourselves, and it could have been a disaster," Earnhardt said. "It could have been stupid and ugly and everything, and it went as good as it could have went. I'm proud of that. I feel like, for the most part, we were in a tough position and we handled it well for the little experience we have handling those type of things."
One thing Earnhardt doesn't think about is his stepmother, DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt. He said the two haven't spoken since an early summer meeting in which Teresa and Max Siegel, DEI's president of global operations, made a proposal to keep him in the fold.
He doesn't find that strange because that relationship always has been strained. If it weren't, he probably wouldn't be talking about a future at Hendrick Motorsports.
"I don't want to sound like I'm writing her off the rest of my life," Earnhardt said. "I want to do right by myself. What's important right now is what's important. If that's something I have time to fix down the road, I'll fix it."
Right now, Earnhardt just wants to get acclimated with his new team and teammates. He wants to win so longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who moved to HMS with him, won't continue to feel the pressure he obviously does.
"He seems really stressed to me," Earnhardt said. "In the past couple of months since going to work there, the information has just been crammed in his brain. He needs a vacation."
Earnhardt doesn't want a vacation. He wishes the Daytona 500 were today.
"When you've had a good season, when you win a race or two and feel like you've done some things, you probably do enjoy the time off and can wait for the beginning of next season," he said. "I don't feel like I ran well enough. I don't want to sit here and reflect.
I'm pissed off we didn't win a race. That's going to bother me for a while. That bothers me every day. I think about it every day.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"The only memory I have is of how badly we ran last year. I want to get out there and be in the top five, and I feel like that's where we belong."
Earnhardt can take solace in knowing he'll have arguably the best equipment in the business next season. He won't have to worry about blowing engines, which happened an amazing six times in 2007.
He won't have to worry about contract negotiations or answer questions about his relationship with Teresa.
"I expect to win next year," Earnhardt said. "I expect to win when I get in the car. I'm good. I want to win. I'm good enough to win. There are no excuses. Tony Jr. is great. Rick's got great equipment, great people, talented members building cars.
"We should contend, and we should be able to pull a few off if we're contending on a regular basis."
Earnhardt is doing all he can to help the cause, down to starting an offseason workout program for the first time in his 33 years.
And no, he's not going to use the trainer Tony Stewart doesn't seem to be spending as much quality time with as he was this time a year ago.
"He don't seem to be on the same program as he used to be," Earnhardt said. "That's Tony. I didn't expect that to work out anyway. I don't need no damn trainer. I know how to run and pick stuff up."
Earnhardt can't wait to start building a relationship with Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears. No bonding trips are planned. He believes they'll mesh out of mutual respect.
"It's not necessarily about, 'Well, if we don't hang out on the boat and fish in the deep sea, does that mean we're not good teammates?'" Earnhardt said. "I don't think so. Fishing ain't my thing.
"I just started bow hunting. That don't mean Jeff and Jimmie are going to go on Oklahoma bow-hunting trips with me just because we're teammates. We all have great respect for each other, and I'm excited to get that work relationship going because of respect."
Earnhardt can't wait to get to work. He wants to collect more hardware than the Most Popular Driver award on his next trip to New York. He wants people to look at him as a winner just as they did his dad.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure, but there's no way to escape it," Earnhardt said. "We've always dealt with it pretty good. I think we'll deal with this kind of pressure good.
"Go out there and get that first top-5, and hopefully the wins will come. When you're winning or running good, you don't feel all the strain and you don't feel the weight of the world."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.