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With Champions Week still in full swing, Junior ready to get back to work

12/4/2008 - NASCAR
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart got watches at Thursday's luncheon. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

NEW YORK -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached across his face with his right hand Thursday and scratched the near-inch of growth on his left cheek shortly after being named NASCAR's most popular driver for the sixth straight year.

The new beard doesn't itch nearly as much as it did when Earnhardt began it, shortly after the final lap of the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.

The real itch now is to get back behind the wheel.

Earnhardt is anxious to prove he's better than the late-season collapse that left him 12th in the standings and out of the top 10 that will be featured in Friday night's banquet at the Waldorf=Astoria.

He's ready to prove he is good enough to win the championship that teammate Jimmie Johnson won for the third straight time, and his late father won seven times.

"He's fired up," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "He was off a week and he called me and he was bored and said he wants to go racing some more. You haven't heard that in a long time, have you?"

Earnhardt used to relish the thought of time off when he was driving for stepmother Teresa Earnhardt at Dale Earnhardt Inc. If he had his way then, the offseason would have been lengthened by a month.

Now it can't end soon enough.

I've definitely got what it takes to win the title. ... Winning the championship has a lot to do with talent, and it has a lot to do with preparation and catching some breaks here and there.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I am really looking forward to next year," Earnhardt said. "I'm looking forward to getting to work. … It's a little somber this offseason due to not running well and not finishing well and not being able to celebrate like everybody else in New York."

Earnhardt looked and sounded more mature than he has at any time during his 34 years. He even admits the past season being at HMS and away from the family business has forced him to grow.

"Yeah, working with Rick is different than working with family," Earnhardt said. "You still get to goof off a little here and there, but for the most part you better be ready to work when it's time to work. I like that. I really do."

He also needs that.

"One of the things I really like about working there is everybody is held responsible and held accountable," Earnhardt said. "You know everybody is carrying their end of the bag."

Watching Johnson's team work tireless hours, testing almost every week from the spring until the season's end to turn around a mediocre start, was inspiring. Earnhardt heard what teammate Jeff Gordon had told him before he drove his first race at HMS.

"I told him when he came to Hendrick to be prepared; that Jimmie and that team, they step it up in a big way in every area, that you're going to find out just what you're made of competing against those guys," Gordon said.

"He's seen an incredible amount of dedication by that team. That's what it takes to win championships. We all see it firsthand."

Earnhardt believes he has what it takes to win a title. He believed he had as good a chance as anybody 15 races into the season when he had a win and was third in points, 84 behind Kyle Busch.

He still believed he had a chance entering the Chase with eight top-5s and 12 top-10s. Hendrick told him before the first playoff race to picture what he would look like holding the championship trophy, because he believed in him as well.

But Earnhardt had only two top-5s and three top-10s in the final 10 races. He was 20th or worse in five of the final nine, including a 28th at Talladega when he was caught up in a wreck, and 41st at Homestead after a wheel bearing broke.

"I've definitely got what it takes to win the title," Earnhardt said. "I'm a solid, really good race-car driver. Winning the championship has a lot to do with talent, and it has a lot to do with preparation and catching some breaks here and there."

Hendrick hasn't lost faith in Earnhardt's ability to win a title. He has already made several changes to the crew around him.

"If we could have run the second half like we did the first half we would have been in the top five in points," Hendrick said. "I don't know what the deal was the second half. About three-quarters of the way we started having all kinds of problems. A lot of it was bad luck. A lot of it was we weren't as sharp as we need to be."

One thing Hendrick won't change is crew chief Tony Eury Jr. He still believes Earnhardt and his cousin can win a title together if they simply improve their communication during a race.

Hendrick also believes adding veteran driver Mark Martin to the No. 5 car that shares a shop with Earnhardt will help.

"You're going to see a lot of success out of that 88 team," he said.

But with testing eliminated by NASCAR to conserve money under tough economic conditions, Earnhardt won't be able to do much to help make that happen until he arrives at Daytona International Speedway in February.

His biggest offseason project, outside of a vacation to an exotic getaway, might be the beard that has Gordon and other drivers calling him "Mountain Man."

"I'll grow it till I have a photo shoot, probably in January," Earnhardt said. "Then I have to get back to the old Junior."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.