CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In unveiling his paint scheme for the Cup race at Darlington Raceway later this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the story of how he learned he would drive for his father’s race team in what is now the Xfinity Series.
His father invited him to the Dale Earnhardt Inc. shop, and inside the shop, Earnhardt Jr. saw a car with his name on it.
The young driver, 23 years old at the time in January 1998, was far from elated.
“I was like, ‘This is a joke, it’s bulls—, it’s not even funny,” Earnhardt said. “There was no way in hell that I thought I would get an opportunity to drive that car.
“They were like, ‘Hey, no joke, it’s real.'”
Now, as his racing career winds down, Earnhardt has reason to feel frustrated amid the realness of a joke-free performance in his final NASCAR Cup season. Sitting 21st in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, Earnhardt can make the NASCAR playoffs only with a win in one of the next seven races. Next up: His last Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He hopes he has a better feeling than he did Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished 18th and highest-finishing Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson placed 10th.
“It’s just not having speed,” Earnhardt said Tuesday by his Darlington car, which he’ll race on Sept. 3. “We want some speed. We’re sitting there at one point, Jimmie, the 24 [Chase Elliott] and me running eighth, ninth and 10th as hard as we could go.
While he seemed a little deflated in talking matter-of-factly about where Hendrick Motorsports is at, he had just talked with hope 15 minutes earlier about the prospects for this weekend at Indianapolis.
“Those guys [at the shop] are working every day — maybe they discovered what we need five minutes ago,” Earnhardt said. “That’s the hope. We obviously know some other teams have got a lot more speed than us right now. …I expect us to find that speed at least before the Chase [playoffs] starts.
“We’ll see. You show up to every race track with the intent that you’ve gotten better, and we’ll see how it works out.”
Earnhardt seems to grasp the realization that his final year as a Cup driver could show stats impacted by mediocre performances coupled with taking chances for wins that result in even worse finishes.
At New Hampshire, Earnhardt had a possible top-10 car — probably not much better than that — but stayed out under green during the final stage for about 10 more laps than the rest of the field, hoping for a caution and track position. It backfired, and he finished 18th.
Earnhardt expects his team to take more chances over the next seven weeks — stat sheet be dammed.
“Months and months down the line, I’m not going to remember running 10th or 18th or 19th there [at New Hampshire],” Earnhardt said. “Winning is all that matters, and I don’t remember too many of the races where we didn’t finish in the top five.
“They weren’t memorable whether they were good finishes or not. So that’s not really grinding my gears too much.”
So don’t be surprised if Earnhardt tries a different pit or fuel-mileage strategy if he is on his way to a not-so-miserable Brickyard 400.
“We have to win, so we have to gamble when we can,” Earnhardt said. “That [at New Hampshire] is not the last time you’re going to see that kind of gamble from us before the playoffs.”
Earnhardt has to have faith, just like the faith his father and his uncle, Tony Eury Sr., showed in him when they put him in the Xfinity car. That proved to be a pretty good roll of the dice — Eury Sr. and his son, Tony Eury Jr., helped turn Earnhardt into a driver who won two titles in the Xfinity Series and won 26 NASCAR Cup races in 614 career starts.
“I think Dad was spending half the sponsorship with his own money and ACDelco was covering the other part,” Earnhardt said. “Tony Sr. … was like, ‘I told him if he is going to spend his own money, he ought to spend it on his son. Why not give him a shot?’
“Basically, Tony Sr. went to bat for me.”
Not all those victories came when he had the fastest car, but Earnhardt knows it likely will take a little more than a gamble to win.
“We’ve got to take risks. … But hopefully we’ve got a faster car when we are doing it, and that might give us a little better shot at it,” Earnhardt said.