DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has felt the gaze since his father first allowed him to begin plying the family trade. The anticipation, the criticism was palpable as he slid behind the wheel of a Nationwide series car he and his crew named "Wild Eyed Crazy Mary" for his start in one of NASCAR's national series in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 1996. At 21, he was still an auto mechanic by trade but was NASCAR aristocracy by bloodline.
Expectation grew as he won Nationwide championships in 1998 and 1999. And when his father, Dale Sr., a seven-time Sprint Cup champion, died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior inherited a legacy, an even larger following and exponentially more scrutiny.
Earnhardt Jr., now 34, begins his 10th full season at NASCAR's highest level this week. He has 18 Cup victories but no championships. His father had only won 15 races, but had a title by now. There is the sense that Earnhardt is growing impatient to please the critic who judges him most harshly — himself. But he seems cognizant of all those eyes, especially after his performance waned late in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, a season in which he won for the first time since 2006 and was second in points halfway through the schedule.
"That was frustrating, not to be able to compete like we did at the start of the year because we always work hard, and I always try to drive really hard," he said, "because if there's one guy out there that would be easy to take a pop shot at for not being focused and not driving hard, it's me."
But Earnhardt apparently never let external pressure into the inner workings of Hendrick Motorsports, where he was equal parts talented driver and attitude coach. Teammate Jimmie Johnson said he was "shocked how little that stuff really bothered him, or that he let it show that it bothered him."
"His focus was to win races. It wasn't to win races for the fans," Johnson added. "At Michigan after he won that points race (last summer), he went up to me — in a funny joking way — but he went, 'I'm a winner!' I lost it. It wasn't, 'Wow, man, the weight's off my shoulder. Now they'll leave me alone.' It was, 'I'm a winner!' "
Such perspective was hard-earned for a man new teammate Mark Martin said has "the broadest, strongest shoulders of anybody probably ever in NASCAR." After capturing a career-high six wins and finishing third in points in 2005, Earnhardt's performance began to erode in his final two seasons at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his father founded for his children to run.
His first season with Hendrick — which has won 32 percent of races and 100 percent of the Sprint Cup titles (with Johnson) since 2006 — in many ways did not justify the hype that preceded it, especially after he was among the fastest cars during Speedweeks and won the nonpoints Bud Shootout. He began his third Chase for the Championship fourth but finished 12th.
"The first half of the year was great," he said. "We were actually one of the better teams in our stable for the first couple, two, three months. Then the last half of the season was a steady stream of disappointments, especially in the Chase."
Earnhardt, though, said his team could become "great" with just a few improvements.
"I was very disappointed with how we ran, but the whole team was (late last season). I was not disappointed in any one individual or anything, we just didn't get it done. We damn sure didn't get it done."
But in a broader, arguably more important sense, maybe they did. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. left DEI at the end of the 2007 season to learn the inner workings of Hendrick, ingratiating himself to the rank and file and learning how to best integrate his cousin into NASCAR's most successful system. The transition, said the team's most-tenured driver, was "awesome."
"When you've got somebody that's the stature of Dale Jr. and his popularity and expectations and people pulling at him as much as they are, you never really know what to expect, how easy or difficult they're going to be to work with week in and week out," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "But he was fantastic, very open, great at describing the car and the setups and knowledgeable. And Tony Jr. impressed the heck out of all of us, as well, how well put together he is at organizing the team and dealing with Junior and being able to put him in his place when he needs to and being a real crew chief."
The key, Gordon said, was "those guys did a great job jelling with Hendrick."
"They didn't come in trying to reinvent things. They want to blend in and be a part of Hendrick and take advantage of the resources that we have but also know their individuality," he added. "I look for great things to come from them this year after getting (the transition) sort of off their shoulders."