Earnhardt getting his swagger back
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. sank into the leather couch in the rear of his No. 88 hauler earlier this week and reflected on the good things -- from finishing second at Daytona, to seventh at Bristol despite a speeding penalty -- that have happened five races into the 2010 Sprint Cup season.
Then he jokingly was reminded of the real bonus: He gets more time with the media as a Chase contender.
"I just got to watch my mouth," Earnhardt said with a smile.
Yes, Earnhardt is back in the top 12, in eighth place heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway.
For the first time since 2008 he gets to park in the front end of the garage (haulers are lined up by points), and reporters won't have to chase him down after practice or qualifying because of NASCAR's mandatory interview session for top-12 drivers.
This is good for the fans who thirst for Earnhardt's insight. This is good for the media who enjoy his wry sense of humor and brutal honesty. This is good for NASCAR, which sorely needs its most popular driver in the spotlight.
It's good for ... OK, not for everybody.
"I was just walking through the garage and thought, 'God Almighty, we're parked next to Dale Jr. That means we won't get a moment of peace all weekend,'" Jeff Burton said with a laugh.
Seriously, the driver seventh in points continued, "Junior has a huge following in the sport. There is no way Junior having success isn't good for the sport. ... I like Junior. He's a good race car driver that's had a lot of attention put on him the last couple of years that wasn't fun attention. It'll be good to see Junior have fun again."
You'll find few if any who disagree.
"It's good for all of us to see him run good," points leader Kevin Harvick said.
More important, this is good for Earnhardt, who needs to believe in himself if followers who have become somewhat disenchanted over the past few years are to believe in him.
"I need to start trying to be more comfortable with the position, being in there," Earnhardt said of the top 12. "I still feel like I'm just a little nervous about keeping it up, keeping it going, because aside from Daytona and Bristol, we've got to get our s--- together still. We've got a lot of work to do."
But there are signs Earnhardt has turned the corner, even if a change of luck is part of the equation.
What happened last weekend at Bristol was a big step. Earnhardt took what could have been a disastrous day -- after a pit road speeding penalty dropped him from fifth to 26th -- and got a solid finish.
That he felt comfortable enough to let loose with a temper tantrum on crew chief Lance McGrew also shouldn't be overlooked. A year ago, Earnhardt was so lost after being separated from longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr. that he almost didn't know how to function. Even when he made the announcement that he and McGrew were staying together for this season there was no conviction in his voice.
There was as he relaxed between spoiler tests at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He defended McGrew for telling him not to "lay down on me, bud." He appreciated understanding that McGrew was upset with the way some misconstrued the exchange as a rift between the two.
Earnhardt said it with a passion, at least from this perspective, that hasn't been heard or felt in some time.
Others see it, too.
"He is letting people push him and he is pushing himself in areas that aren't comfortable," four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. "Being pushed like that [at Bristol], that pressure sparks things in people."
Having his team basically work as one with Mark Martin's also has pushed Earnhardt. He knows there are no more excuses if Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 team performs and he doesn't.
"I mean, he wants to do well, and he is applying himself," Johnson said. "There's always a question of can you do more? That's what every driver fights every year, and you've got to show up each year and figure out a way to apply yourself more.
"But he's been there. He has the desire. It's good to see the results coming for him."
Not that we should read too much into Earnhardt's start. Without multiple green-white-checkered finishes at Daytona and Atlanta he might not have finished in the top 20 in either race. He easily could be 15th to 20th in points, and we'd all be wondering what's on his mind.
We have to get every single point we can every single race. There's a lot of people that can coast through 15 races and still make the Chase. We can't do that. We've got to work hard for everything we get.” -- Lance McGrew
"It wouldn't be much of a season, because really we weren't that great at Fontana or Vegas or Atlanta," Earnhardt said. "We really weren't. We're seeing some bright spots, but, man, we've still got some work to do."
You can hear a hunger in Earnhardt's voice that wasn't there a year ago. You can feel a quiet confidence.
"I know that's kind of a cliché, but we got behind last year and we kept getting further and further behind and had a lot of problems," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully, we just have some better luck on that end and finish these races and get these points even when we're not having good days.
"Kind of like we did at Atlanta, where we run like s--- all day and then finish in the top 15. That was pretty good."
Last year that might have turned into 30th or worse. Earnhardt might have gotten so down on himself that he couldn't rally no matter how hard McGrew tried to motivate him.
"We have to get every single point we can every single race," McGrew said. "There's a lot of people that can coast through 15 races and still make the Chase. We can't do that. We've got to work hard for everything we get."
If that means making Earnhardt mad, then so be it. Remember, there was a time when Earnhardt believed he drove better mad, or at least that was his explanation for in-car radio feuds with Eury.
"I think everybody does," Earnhardt said.
But there's a fine line between driving mad and simply being mad. McGrew was worried it was the latter, which has been the case for a while, when he told his driver not to lay down on him.
"I was kind of chilling out back there," Earnhardt said. "He's got to crack the whip. He's got to motivate me to get back into fighting shape and what have you. He does his job right. He does it good. He makes me understand. He's working hard. It's a good relationship."
Earnhardt says this in a tone that makes one believe he can sustain his new-found status, and that he really wants to be in the spotlight even if he has to watch his mouth.
"It's more of a relief than anything," Earnhardt said. "We've got five races in the bank, and we're just going to keep working on one after the other and try to do the best we can."
And that's good for everybody, even if you're parked next to his hauler.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.