Dale Earnhardt Jr. has his swagger back
CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked small, rather insignificant, on Tuesday as he stood near the 80-foot-by-200-foot high-definition screen on the backstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He looked completely overshadowed.
He looked, well, human.
Sometimes we forget that he is. Sometimes we expect him to do bigger-than-life things like the bigger-than-life things his seven-time champion father did.
We expect him to be Superman when he's really just Clark Kent, making common mistakes on pit road as he did Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, mistakes the man in the red cape never would.
But there have been signs in the first 10 races that Earnhardt can be significant, that he possibly can do something big. His calling a team meeting to apologize for the pit road commitment cone violation that cost him a top-10, possibly a win, was a clear one.
It showed commitment, the kind we've seen from five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and others who have achieved greatness. It showed that Earnhardt cares more than we ever could have imagined.
He certainly didn't call any team meetings after missing his pit box repeatedly the past two seasons.
"It's just important to get that stuff behind you as fast as you can," Earnhardt said as he stood in the shadows of the world's largest HD screen. "I feel we are running well, and I had enough confidence to say in that race, 'Look, I made a mistake there. If we keep our focus, we'll rebound from that very quickly.' "
These are things many screamed that Earnhardt has been missing the past few years. Some suggested that he never would get them back, that he was destined to a career of underachieving.
They've had plenty of evidence. Remember how Earnhardt responded after missing his pit stall once and pitting outside of it later in the 2009 Daytona 500? He said it "shocked the s--- out of me."
"Nothing's easy, but coming down pit road and getting in your stall is like breathing," Earnhardt said at the time. "It's like shifting -- you don't even think it when you're doing it. You just do it.
"It really made me start thinking about it, and I backtracked. I actually got a complex about it, and it became something I definitely was not confident about."
It got so ridiculous that Earnhardt talked to then-crew chief Tony Eury Jr. about making bigger pit board signs, about changing the colors of the numbers.
"I said, 'Why don't we just make this really ridiculous one because everyone's giving us s--- about it?' " Earnhardt said back then.
Nobody's joking now.
Earnhardt is fourth in points heading into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover. And although that isn't leaps and bounds ahead of where he was at this point last season -- eighth -- there definitely is a confidence and focus that wasn't there a year ago.
There also is respect.
Flash back to 2009. NASCAR was within a few hours of announcing the name of a driver we later found to be Jeremy Mayfield who had flunked a drug test. As I stood in the garage next to three crew members and asked what they knew, the Earnhardt crew member among them said, "I hope it's our guy so they can put us out of our misery."
Whether the comment came from Earnhardt being 18th in points or the silly mistakes he was making on pit road, it showed a definite lack of respect. Earnhardt never had heard that story until I shared it with him Tuesday. He seemed surprised.
"That's interesting," Earnhardt said.
And it spoke volumes.
But that's in the past, just as Earnhardt's loss of confidence appears to be. Otherwise, he likely would have shrugged off the pit road mistake and not said a thing to anyone except reporters who wondered how it happened.
"As a driver, I just try to do what's right," Earnhardt said. "As a person, really, you just try to do whatever you think is right. I made a mistake right there, and I feel like I should own up to it and tell them how I feel about the situation."
Earnhardt is doing a lot right these days. He's spending more time with new crew chief Steve Letarte and the team, showing up early to practice and staying late after races to discuss things he normally might have ignored.
"I've seen a lot of new stuff, new sides to Junior this year," Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin said. "I don't think any driver is working harder than Dale Jr. to have success.
"I'm very impressed with how much he's engaged, and you know, I'm real happy to see the results coming from that. Nobody deserves it even more than Dale Jr."
But Earnhardt has far from arrived. Even he admits that.
He said he's not close to winning right now, and acknowledges that the real test will come this summer, a time when he has "notorious problems for being inconsistent." In the races between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend the past three seasons, Earnhardt has average finishes of 14.2, 21.7 and 15.
That won't get you in the Chase.
It's easy to say communication and teamwork are going well when things on the track are going well, but surviving a few bad races in that stretch will tell us where this team really is.
"It will be a test," Earnhardt said. "It's always really hard because it's hot and there's tracks in there that I'm inconsistent at. It's already a high-pressure situation being in the sport alone. If we struggle a little bit going to Pocono the first round, I won't worry."
Another good sign.
As you can tell, Earnhardt was in a good mood, as he has been for most of this season. He actually said he's looking forward to his first time running the preliminary event to qualify for the May 21 All-Star Race at CMS if he doesn't win this weekend at Dover to lock in a spot.
Asked why we never see him getting mad like other drivers, Earnhardt smiled and said, "If I was as competitive as those guys have been over the last several years, I'd definitely be a lot more aggressive about it."
As in throwing punches?
"I don't know what would happen," Earnhardt continued with a laugh. "I'm just saying if I ran up front all the time, sure, I'd be in my share of those mix-ups. It's hard to start a fight when you're on the defense all the time. When your car ain't running good enough, you just look like an idiot running over people."
Well, there is that. And besides, Earnhardt doesn't need to be wasting time or energy on fighting.
"I've been needing to get my ass in gear and getting my car running better here lately," he said.
That's the kind of focus and commitment Earnhardt needs to step out of the shadows and be significant again.
"I'm excited," Earnhardt said of the way things are going. "I'm real happy. I wish we could have won some races by this time. If we stay consistent and stay fast and continue to race cars that are worthy of running in the top 10 or top five, the wins are going to come."
If they do, nothing in NASCAR will be bigger.
Not even the world's largest HD screen.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.