- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s handshake was firm and the grip strong -- stronger than it ever seemed in the past.
Perhaps it's been strengthened from gripping the controls of online video games almost nonstop lately. He was up until 2 a.m. Wednesday playing "Call of Duty," and he had a "big, important" iRacing event scheduled for 7:30 p.m. with an hour of practice planned before.
Or maybe he's been working out more with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, who I'm told is cut well enough that sponsor GoDaddy.com could exploit him in commercials the way the company does Danica Patrick if that were the image he wanted.
All I know is it was strong.
He is strong mentally, as well, at least that's the impression I was left with after Wednesday's media tour stop at HMS headquarters.
He has to be.
It's not easy being NASCAR's most popular driver, particularly when you haven't won a Sprint Cup race since June 2008 (at Michigan), have won only once in the past 135 races and are coming off a season in which you finished a career-worst 25th in points.
Particularly when the performance has gotten so bad that people are making jokes about you. Granted it was scripted, but Earnhardt was ragged by 16-time wrestling champion Ric Flair earlier Wednesday in an event promoting the May All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"He has the biggest house in the biggest side of town," said Flair, pointing to an oversized poster of Dale "Wahoo" Earnhardt and Kevin "Baron Von" Harvick. "Unfortunately, he can't win a race."
"That's disappointing coming from Ric Flair, a guy that I had a lot of respect for,"
Earnhardt said with a smile. " I did build a new house, so I left myself a little of a target there. That's just the way it goes. I feel like that at 35 with two Nationwide championships and 18 career wins and a Daytona 500 win and an All-Star win that I can build a house as big as I feel like building it, I guess."
Take that, Flair.
Earnhardt knows the man who has made a career out of saying "Wooo" didn't mean it personally. He also knows criticism comes with being an Earnhardt in general. Fortunately, many years ago when his father was a lightning rod for controversy, Junior developed a thick skin that helps him handle things today.
One incident stands out in particular. Earnhardt didn't mention the year, but he vividly remembers having a kid from school blame his dad for an accident at Talladega that sent the other driver into the wall.
"Some kid was trying to tell me how my dad almost killed somebody," Earnhardt said, noting the driver blew a tire with his dad five or so car lengths behind. "That to me was normal.
"I don't look back on that and go, 'All that stuff was abnormal, boy it made me tough' or 'Woe with me for being a damn Earnhardt.' That was normal. That was life. That was just how things were, and you deal with it and everything was all right."
Earnhardt says he never complained about criticism then and he doesn't plan to now. He wouldn't trade those life experiences for anything because they shaped him into the man he is.
"I guess I was lucky I wasn't that impressionable back then," Earnhardt said. "That kind of stuff didn't sink in and bother me all the way to the house. It didn't turn me into somebody who dwelled in his bedroom all night."
He paused, looked around at the horde of reporters in his corner of the Hendrick Museum.
"I don't even know what we're talking about," he said.
Everyone laughed. Somebody reminded him he was talking about being an Earnhardt.
Just going to dinner with him is an episode. I can't imagine his day-to-day life, how he manages to even function.
”-- Crew chief Lance McGrew
on Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Yeah, that's what I've always been," Earnhardt deadpanned.
It was good to see Earnhardt so relaxed and upbeat, as upbeat as he could be with reporters drilling him on everything from missing his pit stall several times last year to whether he would win another race.
The life that seemingly was drained out of him this past fall when Earnhardt said he was "at the end of my rope" was back in his eyes.
Maybe it never really left. Earnhardt doesn't hesitate to say he is misunderstood.
"I don't think people do get it, obviously," he said. "To me, I feel completely, um, utterly normal. I do everything everybody else does. The things I'm interested in are the same things that guys my age are interested in."
Yes, Earnhardt is comfortable in his own skin, but that doesn't make it easy being him. Those who work closest with him can't imagine.
"Of all the people that would have traded places with him a few years ago, I'm not so sure many would trade places today," Martin said. "You guys all know I think he has the strongest shoulders in NASCAR. He was a real trouper in 2009. We all need to recognize it and respect it."
Crew chief Lance McGrew agreed.
"Just going to dinner with him is an episode," he said. "I can't imagine his day-to-day life, how he manages to even function."
Four-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson sees the same thing.
"He's got more pressure on him than I think a lot of us realize," he said, recalling how Earnhardt left Dale Earnhardt Inc. after the 2007 season. "It's easy to make light of the situation, but the decisions he made to leave the family company, to come here, to work through the issues, to have his friend and cousin [Tony Eury Jr.] as a crew chief and move through that and start over with Lance, it's been tough on him.
"There's no way around it -- it's been tough on him."
But Earnhardt isn't waving white flags. He believes he has the talent and equipment to be as good on the track as he is online.
And he's very good online, winning about 180 of a career 300 events on iRacing.
"Hell, I'm there every day," Earnhardt said. "Every damn day I go home, I'm on the damn thing. I just take a break every 30 minutes and play some 'Call of Duty' and go shoot some people, then back to racing."
Earnhardt loves the environment online. He loves the relationship he has formed with competitors in the past 10 or so years.
"They know who I am, but they don't give me no s--- about it," he said. "They don't ask me if I'm ready for next year."
Earnhardt sounded like a kid in a candy store as he talked about Wednesday night's virtual race, the last of a 25-week Pro Series tournament he said began with 15,000 consumers.
"I'm No. 1 in the ranking," he said.
Maybe one day the sport's most-loved driver will be No. 1 on the track the way his father finished seven Cup seasons. Maybe it'll happen this season. Hendrick is committed to turning the No. 88 team around. So is McGrew; he and Alan Gustafson and the rest of Martin's team have joined forces to make the No. 88 and No. 5 shop work as one.
But in the end it'll be Earnhardt who has to step up. If his resolve is as strong as his handshake was Wednesday, he has a fighting chance.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.