By Aaron Bearden
With the busiest daily schedule of any driver in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. already had a difficult time juggling his responsibilities before this year.
It’s no surprise, then, that finding the time to enjoy his retirement tour has proven difficult.
“You don’t balance it very well,” Earnhardt said during a media availability Friday at Kentucky Speedway. “You know, I just spent three hours practicing today, never once thought about my retirement or this being my last year. I was thinking about how in the hell to get that car to go a little faster. Nothing’s came easy today.
“On days like today, you could tell me I have five more years of this and I wouldn’t know any better. It feels just like any other race, any other practice, because you just get in there and you get competitive.”
The only reprieve for Earnhardt come as he’s away from the track, when time slows down.
“I think that during the week things aren’t quite as tense or there is a little more ease of mind knowing there is a definite end point,” Earnhardt said. “So during the week I think I’m a little more relaxed and able to not stay so wound up like I used to be. Man, you get to the race track and you can’t help it.”
Earnhardt came into this season hopeful he could find a new level of calm at the racetrack, but the pressure of a difficult season to date has proven too great to overcome.
Things appeared poised to start off well for the Kannapolis, N.C. native. Fresh off of a marriage to longtime girlfriend Amy Earnhardt, the 42-year-old rolled off the truck fast at Daytona International Speedway, earning a front-row starting position and leading laps during the Daytona 500. But a mid-race spin from Kyle Busch brought his Daytona dreams to an early end.
In many ways, the storylines from that race have continued throughout the season for Earnhardt. He has shown bursts of speed, even contending throughout the day at Texas Motor Speedway before settling for a fifth-place result.
However, most glimpses of hope have been snuffed out by mid-race disappointment.
There’ve been crashes – four of which have led to DNFs thus far. Earnhardt has had pit road penalties, restart difficulties and even a rare engine failure at Pocono Raceway. In other races, he and crew chief Greg Ives have simply struggled to find the correct balance.
In what may be his final trip to Daytona, Earnhardt surged to the pole and overcame an early crash only to be taken out by a similar accident as the laps wound down.
The result of Earnhardt’s unexpected struggles is a mountain to the playoffs that may prove too steep to climb. He currently sits 22nd in the series standings, with no obvious chances at a victory between this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway and the beginning of the playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway.
As the poor results stack up, Earnhardt admitted he’s slumped back into old form.
“I told myself when I had that little time out of the car that I was going to come back, and I was just going to enjoy it,” Earnhardt said. “I was going to be this great guy, so much fun to be around, and not so hard on everybody.
“But you can’t help it. It’s midseason, and I’m back to midseason form with my attitude. You can’t help it when you want to do well, and I want to do as well this weekend as I did at this track six years ago. It’s no more, no less. If you’re going to come here and do the work, put all that effort in there, you might as well try your best.”
Given his position and the standings and eagerness to please his fans, Earnhardt is likely to maintain his current stress until the end of the season, or at least until he manages a trip to victory lane. He already admits to feeling extra pressure in his final Daytona start.
“I think at Daytona there was an urgency, you know, because I think it’s an easier race to win for me than it is here,” Earnhardt said. “Or I think that I go in there knowing what I need to do to win. I felt like I was very aggressive in the race and having a lot of fun and my car was amazing and all I needed to do was to be right there at the end and we didn’t get to do that.
“Do I think that we don’t have any more chances? I think we can show up somewhere and get the job done. But it’s just not going to come as easy as it might have come at Daytona. And it’s going to be some work.”