For a few hours on Friday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr looked like the Dale Jr of old – confident, dominant, happy. Jr Nation hasn’t seen that version of Dale Jr for quite some time. And to many, it was a welcomed sight.
With about 30 laps to go in the Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeño 250 at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Jr took the lead from Kyle Busch and never looked back. He held off Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, earning his first N’wide win since 2006, and his first NASCAR race since 2008.
A few days removed from Jr’s magical victory, and there is a glimmer of hope in the eye of most, if not every, Dale Jr fan. “Jr’s got his mojo back. It’s only a matter of time before he gets another Sprint Cup win,” I’m sure many of them are thinking.
But, we need to remember the circumstances under which Dale Jr won that race Friday night.
His intention was never getting a top 10 or a top 5. He came to win. Finishing second wasn’t an option, and he knew it. After winning the race, Jr said:
I was so worried that I wasn’t going to win, ’cause nothing but a win would get it — for everybody. If we didn’t win, what a waste of time. … I worked hard to try to win, not only for daddy — I’m proud of him going to the Hall of Fame, and he would be proud of this, I’m sure — but just all these fans.
While there was certainly pressure there – running the legendary No. 3 Wrangler Chevy his dad made famous – it wasn’t the same kind of pressure that comes with trying to make the Chase and racing for points to guarantee a shot at the Sprint Cup championship.
The pressure from Friday’s race seems to be the kind of pressure that Jr thrives under. He ran the No. 3 before at Daytona, in 2001, and won. He also won the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s tragic death. That type of pressure stems from the emotions involved, and that’s when Dale Jr shines.
But, the pressures of the Sprint Cup Series are a whole different animal. The pressures of emotions are steeped in fan and team expectations. Those pressures are there in the Sprint Cup, but they’re compounded by the pressure to stay in the top 12 in points and make the Chase, and to ultimately win a championship – an expectation if your last name is Earnhardt.
In the Nationwide race, Dale Jr could race for the win. I’m sure he didn’t want to wreck the car, but in the closing laps of the N’Wide race, he would have been willing to wreck the car if it meant a shot at winning. In the Sprint Cup, he can’t do that. He can’t risk losing points. So, he’s forced to race conservatively.
Other teams have to deal with the same sort of pressure, but Jr’s is magnified by his last name and by the fact that the team has struggled with setups so much that he has to race for good finishes rather than wins.
I’m not questioning Dale Jr’s talent, drive, focus, or even his ability to handle the pressure. All I am saying is that before we start to think the old Dale Jr is back, let’s remember the circumstances under which he won on Friday.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Lead-Lap.com