Dale Earnhardt Jr. has said that his mood often correlates with his performances on the racetrack. If that's the case, it's no wonder he hasn't been the happiest guy in the world for quite a while now.
"That's a good way to put it," Earnhardt said this week. "I mean, I've tried to be as nice as I can to everybody, but it's not been at all pleasant."
And for good reason.
Earnhardt, 36, has not won a Sprint Cup race in more than two years and has missed the Chase for the Championship the past two seasons. Today, he begins the season in the exhibition Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway with a revamped team assembled by Hendrick Motorsports. The changes included transferring Jeff Gordon's former crew chief, Steve Letarte, to Earnhardt.
What Earnhardt expressed this week is how eager he is to begin the season and his love for the Daytona 500. What he won't do is make excuses for the past several years.
"I take full responsibility for how I've ran," he said. "I don't put that on anyone else. One of the worst parts about it is, running bad, it affects not only you, it affects your crew chief, your relationship with your team. I had an awesome relationship with the guys that I worked with last year. I have a good friendship with Lance (McGrew).
"But you hate that those people are directly affected by how your performance is, especially mine. The fans take a lot of wear and tear going through stuff like that. … So starting with a new team, I just want to be able to run well, not have those guys go through that same experience that Lance and the team that I was working with the past couple years went through."
As much as Earnhardt would like to shoulder all the blame, other drivers said the reality is he carries not only his own racing problems but the burden of being the son of a legend. That will be even more evident next week — the 10th anniversary of his father Dale Sr.'s death during the final lap of the Daytona 500.
"I think he can handle it, but I think it will be an additional stress and strain on him," teammate Mark Martin said. "But I think he can handle it and shoulder it. You have heard me say it before, and I am going to say it again. This is the strongest set of shoulders in motorsports.
"And he gracefully carries the incredible weight, and under the incredible circumstances, he is a strong individual who carries an enormous amount, and you know … I wouldn't want to be him. But he does well with it."
Under Letarte, Earnhardt has been forced to make changes. His schedule is now set by the crew chief — including meetings before and after practice — which will require Earnhardt to be at his car 30 minutes earlier than normal. That's even if it means blowing off an interview, photo shoot or some other engagement. Gordon understands that mentality and believes it could be a positive change.
"The crew chief, he runs the team. That's the way I think it should be," Gordon said. "That's the way it has been for all the successful teams in my mind. I'm not in Dale Jr.'s shoes. He's very popular, has a lot of demands, a lot of people pulling at him. I think it's not only about being committed but showing commitment, the perception of it. You can still do the things that are important to you, but you have to be sure that all those guys are working hard, stand where you stand, doing all the things they're doing for a reason. You know, I applaud Steve for stepping up, and I applaud Junior for knowing that's what it's going to take. I look to those guys to have a good year this year."
So, too, does Earnhardt.
"I'm ready to get going and get to the racetrack and see if we can turn things around," he said.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]