Commentary

Junior's early arrival at Daytona shows renewed vigor, dedication

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s decision to show up a week early at Daytona testing said plenty about NASCAR's most popular driver, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: January 16, 2008, 12:31 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Each year at this time, as December eases into January, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is itching to scratch the very same emotion: boredom. While most folks in the NASCAR circus are knocking off the cobwebs from a far-too-festive (and brief) holiday season, Junior is plumb stir-crazy. Every single year.

Not that the offseason monotony triggered impromptu appearances at racetracks, mind you. He was bored, sure, but that doesn't mean he was making any unnecessary trips off the ranch.

That's why his spontaneous decision to fuel up the bird and zip down to Daytona on Jan. 6 was such a striking revelation. It suggested a new vigor, a new dedication.

See, Daytona testing itself is a monotonous exercise. Sitting through two-plus days of it is almost comical for competitors -- though it's important to note that this year, the first full season with the Car of Tomorrow, was more fun than normal because teams were actually learning new information.

Junior stayed at the track for only a few hours, but that half-day said more about the man than any quote or any lap speed on any practice sheet could ever say.

It screamed of a true understanding of just how sizeable the stakes before him are.

He has the best cars. He has the most sponsorship backing. He has the best resources and the best engineering and the best people. He believes he's the best driver in NASCAR. That leaves just one crucial variable: chemistry.

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The tedium of that ever-fickle dynamic was in full display as he walked into the garage that Monday morning. The crews on the other three Hendrick teams -- Jimmie Johnson's 48, Jeff Gordon's 24 and Casey Mears' 5 -- sort of sat back and stared, uncertain exactly how to approach NASCAR's registered rock star.

See, many folks just presume that crew guys know the drivers, that because everyone travels the circuit together 40 weeks a year, they're all best buddies. That's not the case at all. Many crew guys don't even know their own drivers, much less those on other teams. Much less the most popular guy out there.

So they nodded.

Likewise, Earnhardt didn't know how to approach the crew guys, a bit fearful that he'd be perceived as trying to grandstand. That wasn't the idea at all. He wanted to sit in the back of the garage and soak it up, chat with his teammates and learn.

And lay the foundation to begin developing that all-important chemistry.

It sounds ridiculous, but that's what will determine whether Earnhardt lives up to the otherworldly expectations. Fortunately for him, his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., left Dale Earnhardt Inc. for HMS well before season's end in 2007 to jump-start the experiment.

That was critical.

But equally critical was that morning of Jan. 6., when Earnhardt sat in the back of the garage in baggy jeans, a gray jacket and a beige Hendrick Motorsports cap, just hanging out with the guys.

That single decision quieted critics who wondered if he had the wherewithal to wholly invest in team, and embrace not being The Man in the organization.

He shrugged it off, saying it's just what he felt like doing that day. But he shouldn't; no one else in the sport, especially his team, did.

Marty,

We've heard every talking head in the world give an opinion about Junior's move to Hendrick and how they think he'll do. What about the other drivers? How do they think he'll do?

-- Katie, Atlanta

Great timing on that question, actually, Katie. Kevin Harvick was asked his thoughts on that very topic Monday at Daytona testing. He's a great barometer, too, I'd say, given his outspokenness, honesty and the fact that he has no underlying motive to say anything but his true feelings on the matter.

"I hope he does well," Harvick said. "I think everybody in the garage is kind of rooting that direction. I don't think anybody wants to see him not do well. I think he will do well."

The fact that Earnhardt made the decision that was right for him, personally, impressed many folks.

"That's the most important thing," Harvick continued. "When you go to work in the morning, and if you're not happy, then it's not a fun day and you're not having fun at your job. So I think just that part of it, just that relief of being able to make the decision that he made and be able to do things how he wants to do them is a relief in itself.

"Obviously I think a lot of pressure is probably put on him from a media standpoint to do well, but he's going to do well. There's no doubt that he's not going to do a good job. He's got a great organization around him, he's got good people, he's got everything that he needs."

There you have it, Katie.

Marty,

I read a story in which you did Rock Chalk Jayhawk to pay off a bet. First of all that's cool you actually had the (guts) to live up to your bet. And also I have to see that! Will it be on NASCAR Now?

-- Jackson Honeycutt, Kansas City

Indeed I did, Jackson. And I am an idiot.

Jimmie Johnson's publicist, Kristine Curley, to whom I owed the penance, is a Kansas grad. The bet was simple: If my beloved Virginia Tech Hokies won the Orange Bowl, she'd have to dress in a VT cheerleading uniform and do the Hokie Pokey. On camera. If Kansas prevailed, I was to dress up as KU coach Mark Mangino and perform the Rock Chalk Jayhawk chant. On camera. Kansas, much to my chagrin, won the game.

On such short notice, Curley couldn't locate the requisite tools needed for the Mangino idea, so I just put on her smedium KU football shirt and beanie, pulled a Jayhawk golf club cover onto my hand like a puppet and began singing.

I was in the garage in front of far too many people -- fellow media, drivers, fans and the like -- and looked like a complete moron. But, all said, no one can say I don't live up to my end of the deal when it comes to the Hokies.

And as for it being on NASCAR Now -- I pray not. But if it happens I won't be the least bit surprised.

Hey Marty,

I was just wondering about HAAS CNC racing. We have Jeremy Mayfield, who we know can win, and now Scott Riggs comes aboard and I heard Chocolate Myers say on Sirius that he should have won a race by now if it wasn't for bad luck. Do you think with HAAS using Hendrick equipment Scott and Jeremy should be drivers to watch for this season?

-- Nate, Wilcox, Neb.

This is a make-or-break deal for both drivers, Nate, and in my estimation it is the best situation in which either has found himself in quite some time. Granted, Haas has underachieved in the past and it will ultimately come down to the team's willingness to spend the money to run up front and hire great people.

It's about people in 2008, maybe more than ever. It's awfully hard to pass with the COT, so quality, consistent pit stops are absolutely vital. Ten spots lost on pit road aren't easily made up on the racetrack.

Mayfield was in an impossible situation at Bill Davis Racing. That's not a knock on BDR, either. It's a product of a heartless Top-35 rule that is just relentless to those outside the threshold. It is not an uphill battle, it is an up-Everest battle. He is now free of that issue, solidly in the Top 35 and focused on running well on Sunday, not surviving on Friday.

As for Riggs, he's set to be a major surprise in 2008. He is among the more underrated drivers in the sport, and is aligned with Bootie Barker, who is one of the two or three most underrated minds in the sport. And ultimately I like both guys, so I'm rooting for them.

That's my time. My son is getting quite impatient. He just threw a SuperBall and hit me in the side of the head. Time to play.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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