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NASCAR's MVP, in its hour of crisis: Dale Earnhardt Jr., stock car racing's most popular driver


Will this be the season that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been waiting for for so long? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


By Mike Mulhern

   This sport has never needed him more. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears ready to deliver.
   Not just on the track either, though that's where he's favored, slightly, in Saturday night's Bud Shootout.
   Daytona International Speedway is Earnhardt's kind of place.
   His father became a legend here.
   And like father, like son.
   After the relative disappointment of 2008, the third generation racing Earnhardt looks ready to live up to the promise he's felt inside himself for so many years.
   "The last three years I haven't really done the things I thought I would be doing. I haven't competed like I felt I should be competing," Earnhardt says.
   "I felt I was on an upswing when I started in Cup in 2000 all the way to 2004. Then I made some choices, and I let some other people make some choices…and I started to go in the wrong direction.
    "That has been the biggest hurdle to try to get over, the biggest thing to try to reverse -- to become more the total package."
   Yes, Earnhardt has won big races, he's hit home runs (even though his only tour win last season was on gas mileage).
   But the stock car championship has eluded him, the Cup that his father won a record seven times.
   If this is the season that Junior finally makes his case, then it may well begin right here Saturday night.
   When Earnhardt won the Shootout last February, in his first run for new team owner Rick Hendrick, "it was just relief," Earnhardt says.
   "We just came out of the box as a new team…and I got some great help from my teammates in that race, which was really inspiring to me. It made me feel great to have them helping me in the race to win.
    "It is so easy to get competitive; and you are competitive toward each other.
    "But when it really came down to it, they saw opportunity, and they worked with me.
    "We were kind of shocked and surprised. It is a tough race to win -- it is sort of a crapshoot."
    And this Shootout, Earnhardt predicts, "is going to be more of an adventure because of the number of cars (28). It is just going to be wilder."
   This season Earnhardt says he's starting in an easier frame of mind: "I feel a little more comfortable and a little less concerned. 
    "Going into a season with a new team you have not had any laps with, man, you really wonder how it is going to work out. We had an idea we were a pretty good team.
   "Now we make a few adjustments, do some things right, catch a few breaks -- and we are a great team.
    "We are going to try to make that happen this year."
   New teammate Mark Martin has been quite complimentary of Earnhardt over the years, and Martin says he's been impressed the way Earnhardt has dealt with the pressures of just being Dale Earnhardt Jr., that Earnhardt has 'the broadest shoulders' of anyone in the garage: "That is a hell of a compliment, man," Earnhardt says.
   "It is a great compliment.
    "I feel I take a big role in this sport. I am glad to be part of this sport. I am glad to represent the sport -- on my good days or my bad days.
    "I love being a part of it. And whatever I've got to shoulder, that I feel is fair, I am fine with.
    "If it isn't fair, I am not fine with it.
     "But I bet a lot of people are like that.
    "I have been through enough crap to not want to be here anymore…but I love driving race cars, and I am going to drive them as long as I want to drive them. I hope that is a long, long time.
    "I want to have good years, I want to have good seasons, I want to win races.
     "However good of a damn driver I am, I guess that is up to everyone else to decide."
   And the toughest part of being Dale Earnhardt Jr.? "Answering a lot of questions. I got to answer so many damn questions.
    "I never wanted to be asked so many questions.
    "I just wanted to drive…but that's not all there is to it."

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