Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked several years ago about the probability that he would retire from driving around the age of 40.
Now 38 and with his career on an upsurge, Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday he is looking at things differently. He said his outlook “absolutely” has changed.
“I really didn’t know about five years ago how I felt about all that,” he said. “I was in sort of limbo as to what I thought about the end of my career. These past two years – you want things to go like they’ve gone the past two years.
“Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte) and I are getting better. We had a better year last year. We’re hoping this year we go in that same trajectory. That changes around your entire thinking.
“That’s a direct result of the way we’ve been running. When you’re running well, you want to be in it and around it. And you think about the next 10 years.”
The idea of winning a championship also has returned to the front of his thinking, Earnhardt Jr. said.
“I always felt I could,” he said. “I never thought to myself that I’m just not cut out to be a champion. I never felt that way. I know it takes so many variables coming together and takes everything working the right way.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s move from the team his father started to Hendrick Motorsports did not produce rapid-fire results. He fell into a long winless streak, one that finally ended last year.
“It felt like we were so far away from where we needed to be,” he said. “Then Rick (team owner Rick Hendrick) made all the changes, and things started looking up. It’s important that that continues to progress. Things can’t flat-line. We can’t say we’re a top-10 team and continue to be that.
“Now I feel like we’ve got to do more than that. We’ve got to win more than one race. We weren’t satisfying with winning one race. We have to look at ourselves as a team that is capable of winning several races and maintain that consistency we had last year.”
Earnhardt Jr. won two championships in the Nationwide Series with his father’s team and showed early sparkle when he went Cup full-time in 2000, but then the express train stalled.
“I certainly felt like the sky was the limit,” he said. “I felt like we were on course to repeat what we had done in the Nationwide Series. Then the last half of that rookie season really brought us back to reality. That was just brutal on the team.”
Now Junior seems to have stabilized his situation at Hendrick with Letarte, and the goal in 2013 will be a season bigger than the last.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.