New hope for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

12/3/2010 - NASCAR

LAS VEGAS -- A naturally shy person, Dale Earnhardt Jr. admittedly was nervous when he stepped to the microphone on Thursday to receive his eighth straight most popular driver award. He also admittedly was a bit embarrassed having to accept the award after such a dismal season.

That's a good sign.

It showed Earnhardt's not satisfied with how his career is going, that it's not cool to finish 21st in points and get a free trip to Las Vegas for the season-ending banquet because of his popularity.

He hopes the changes team owner Rick Hendrick has made, moving him into the same shop with five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and pairing him with Jeff Gordon's former crew chief, Steve Letarte, will help.

But he's smart enough to know the turnaround has to start with the person he wakes up and sees in the mirror first thing every morning.

"The only person that can truly help me get where I need to go starts with me, then it goes to Rick, Steve and those guys in your inner circle every week and in your corner every week,'' Earnhardt said. "My biggest problem, I think, is my confidence.''

Admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery.

And Earnhardt wants to recover. He wants to prove to all those fans who think he's lost the skills that helped him win 17 of his 18 races before moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 -- who think he's given up on himself and on ever living up to half the expectations put on him -- that he still has it.

Having something to prove also is a big step in the road to recovery.

"I used to own up to my own inconsistencies back in 2000, 2001 all the way up through 2004 and '05 when we had some of our more successful years,'' Earnhardt said. "I'd do anything to be that inconsistent now.

"I know I can be that guy again -- at least that good. This is a good opportunity to see if that can happen.''

As Earnhardt spoke to reporters for the first time since it was announced he would swap buildings with Jeff Gordon and leave crew chief Lance McGrew for Letarte, Hendrick leaned into the crowd to hear what was being said.

He liked what he heard.

"Just the excitement,'' Hendrick said. "You've got to know that shop has produced some awfully good cars. I'm not trying to put pressure on him. I'm trying to give him confidence so he knows he's got what he needs.''

Hendrick is so confident in Earnhardt that he hopes to sign him to an extension before the current five-year deal expires in 2012. He believes in Earnhardt and believes the changes will get him back to the level when he won six races and finished fifth in points in 2004.

"I really like him,'' Hendrick said. "I think the world of him. I know he can do it. We just have to get the right combination for him, and I think we're going to have it.''

Some might call this blind faith. After all, Earnhardt has gone 93 races without winning a race and missed the Chase three of the past four years. He hasn't come close the past two, finishing 25th and 21st.

But if anybody can turn Earnhardt around it is Hendrick, who has won a record 10 championships and more than 200 races. Remember, he's the guy who sat Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus down with milk and cookies to straighten their relationship out and make them a championship team.

He's the guy who kept his organization from falling apart after losing key personnel in a 2004 plane crash at Martinsville.

Hendrick could be the Dr. Phil of driver and race personnel relationships.

That Earnhardt trusts Hendrick like a father will help mend the wounds faster. He already sounds more confident.

"I know what I've done in my past and I know that I've outrun and beat these guys that I compete with each week before,'' Earnhardt said. "I just have to remember that the potential is there.''

Sometimes we forget Earnhardt won two Nationwide Series titles and the promise he showed early in his Cup career. We get lost in comments such as "I'm at the end of my rope'' and "I'm frustrated'' and start to think this is a lost soul who never will find his way.

"I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have,'' Earnhardt said. "To convince myself to get back where I need to be confidencewise, I need to see it happen on the track.

I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have. To convince myself to get back where I need to be confidencewise, I need to see it happen on the track.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I can't just talk myself into going to the track thinking the way I need to think. I'm going to go there, mash the gas and it needs to happen.''

Pairing Earnhardt with Johnson and Knaus has to help. Earnhardt can't help but see the five sterling trophies every time he walks into the shop, feel the energy that is generated from a championship organization.

"I hope for me, that being around him and his group and their professionalism will rub off on me, make me a better person, make me more productive in my communication,'' Earnhardt said.

"It's a little bit intimidating going in there and knowing how successful that team has been. It's also an opportunity to rub up against it and learn what you can.''

Again, you hear the excitement Hendrick spoke of. Earnhardt compared it to knowing what you're getting for Christmas but not being able to play with it until Christmas Day.

There is hope in his voice instead of despair.

"You look at it as a clean slate and a chance to see if this new package, new chemistry will produce better results,'' Earnhardt said. "The anticipation to get to the track is more and you're ready to go to work and want to go run laps at the same speed and see lap times and see adjustments and feel new cars and what they're doing and how they¹re reacting to the changes that the new crew chief is making and the new engineer is producing.''

More good signs.

Will it produce instant results? Maybe, but Earnhardt isn't looking for a quick fix. He's looking for something that will enable him to compete at a high level for many more years.

And for the record, he shouldn't feel bad that fans continue to vote him the most popular driver. Seven of the 16 times Bill Elliott was honored with the award he didn't win a race. Four times he finished 18th or worse in points, including 30th in 1996 when he didn't run a full schedule.

This is not meant to compare Elliott's career to Earnhardt's. Elliott did win a title in 1988 and has 44 career wins, 26 more than Earnhardt. He also had three streaks of going winless for at least six seasons.

So even the most popular of all went through dry spells.

Earnhardt can win again. He can compete for the Chase again. He just needs to believe in himself and let Hendrick do the rest.

"In this time and age, you have to produce now,'' Earnhardt said. "We feel that urgency and we feel that responsibility and pressure.''

That's a good sign.

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