CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Attention, Junior Nation.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes this is the year he’s ready to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Coming off a fifth-place finish in the season-ending points, his best showing in seven years, the third-generation star finally has the top contenders in sight.
He believes the tools are now in place to put his No. 88 Chevrolet to race to the top of the standings. He believes the team just needs a win or two to gain some momentum.
“To win the championship, we need to win races regardless of the (points) format,” Earnhardt said at the 32nd annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. “We ran second a lot of last year and that felt great, and it was a statement that we are moving closer to that goal.
“I think we’re right there, right around the corner. This is the year.”
The 11-time reigning most popular driver knows a championship would be a huge hit with the fans. But for a driver who will turn 40 in August, it’s more about fulfilling his own desires.
“I know winning the championship is my ultimate goal,” said Earnhardt, a 19-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series. “It’s something that I would love to say I’ve accomplished. I would love to say that I’m a champion in this sport. It would definitely complete my career. I used to didn’t think it was a big deal, but now I’m in a position with a group of guys who might actually get it done.”
The Cleveland, N.C. resident sees it as the first time in a decade that he’s been in a position this good. The last time, he felt this good about his chances was a decade ago and three-year stretch when he won 10 races. It included a 2003 season when he finished a career-best third in the point standings, and a 2004 season when he won six races including the Daytona 500 and the Bristol night race.
“It’s been so long since I felt like I’ve had that opportunity,” he said. “From around 2002 to 2004 those years, we felt like we were competitive enough, were a good enough team. Here we are again. Last year and this year, we’re back at that level of competition. We just need to get to victory lane first and put a win under belt and get some confidence.”
There is the added motivation of wanting to win for crew chief Steve Letarte who will be leaving at the end of the season to become an analyst for NBC Sports. Letarte has been Earnhardt’s crew chief since the 2011 season and they’ve made the Chase all three years together.
As for the selection of a new crew chief, Earnhardt would like to take part in the process, but leave the ultimate decision up to car owner Rick Hendrick and others within the race shop.
For himself, Earnhardt is working on all he can do to become a better driver. He has made a commitment to work harder than ever before.
“The work ethic is however good you want to be at your job,” he said. “If you love your job and want to be successful at it, you will work hard. I’ve learned a lot about work ethic over the last 20 years. You get into racing thinking you’re working your guts out, then you learn there’s another step and another step. You just keep finding more in yourself over a period of time.”
There is a lot to live up to as the son of an American icon.
Earnhardt weighed in on car owner Richard Childress putting his grandson, Austin Dillon, in the No. 3 Chevrolet. It’s the first time the No. 3 has raced in the Sprint Cup Series since the death of Earnhardt’s father at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.
A friend of the Childress and Dillon families for decades, Earnhardt is glad to see the rookie driver behind the wheel of the famous ride.
“He’s one of the rising stars in the sport. I’m really excited about Austin starting his legacy with the 3,” Earnhardt said. “I’m here to help him as much as I can. I want him to know I’m accessible and he can come to me for anything he needs. I want to see him have success. I’ve grown up with the family. It will be good to have that number back and doing well. Austin is the perfect person to start it.”
With enough success, Dillon may even become a celebrity on scale of the younger Earnhardt. Known to many around the world, Earnhardt didn’t envision the sometimes overwhelming fame years ago.
“I never saw myself in high school becoming this big star,” he said. “I don’t know what happened really. I was just there the right place at the right time. I don’t see my personality as anything special or unique in any way.
“I’m a good guy who tries to make good decisions and treat people right. But all the things, the success, the star power and celebrity, has been just short of a fluke in a sense. It’s an oddity that could have happened to anybody.”