It isn’t often that Dale Earnhardt Jr., the rock star of NASCAR, can wander out in public and not be recognized and mobbed for autographs.
However, it happened in Chicago when Earnhardt Jr. and some friends visited Millennium Park, one of the city’s most popular downtown areas.
“We went to the ‘bean,’ and nobody said a word,” Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday. “Any time you’re in a big city, you can blend right in.”
The ‘bean’ is the Cloud sculpture, a huge piece of artwork that resembles a bean.
Earnhardt Jr. hopes to stand out from the crowd beginning Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway as the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins and he seeks his first Sprint Cup championship, one Earnhardt Nation figured he would have had years ago. Dale Earnhardt Sr. won seven titles.
With one victory in the regular season, Junior will open the Chase in a tie for seventh with Matt Kenseth. He begins the 10-race run nine points behind leader Denny Hamlin.
Although Junior hasn’t won a Sprint Cup title, he was the Nationwide Series champion in 1998 and 1999 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. It was a different world then, he said.
“I think back to how we won those Nationwide Series championships,” he said. “I didn’t know how to run for a championship. We just went out and ran as hard as we could and got a big-enough lead to lock it up early.
“I thought at that time I knew how to win a championship. I really didn’t. It’s taken a lot of mistakes to get smarter. I feel like if I do what I need to do on the race track myself and not make mistakes, I can put myself in a good position to win this one.”
Earnhardt Jr. has seemed to elevate his game and his focus this season, and he said Wednesday he feels good rolling into the most important part of the season.
“I’m pretty confident,” he said. “I think we’ve worked on confidence and built confidence up. I think we have good reason to be confident. I’ve been enjoying what we’ve done. I’ve been happy. Hopefully, when we get to Homestead I’ll be happy.
“I don’t want to overstate it. It’s going to be a real challenge to win it this year. Anybody who does it is going to earn it.”
How would his life change as Sprint Cup champion?
“I don’t know it would change my life at all, really,” he said, “but it would cap off a career that’s had good success and is just missing that one piece of the puzzle.”
Earnhardt Jr., crew chief Steve Letarte and other members of the No. 88 team gathered at Letarte’s house Sunday for a pool party and a mini-celebration of the team’s regular season and its run to the Chase.
Now the harder work begins.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.