Dale Jr. Earnhardt intent on winning more than popularity contest this NASCAR season

His 2012 performance offers tremendous encouragement with the Hendrick team this season

DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been NASCAR's enigmatic favorite son.

He has more than a decade's worth of emotional tragedy that he's dragged around from track to track. The NASCAR Nation has mourned the loss of his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., with him all this time. Every pit stop along the way has been a painful reminder of what could have been had father and son gotten to enjoy the ride together for more than a couple of years.

Dale Jr., now 38, has moved on as best he can. He has been disengaged at times, looking like an uninterested passenger who wanted to be anywhere but in a stock car. He has talked about having wanted to shut it down after his father was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

This perspective is necessary as we approach the start of the 2013 NASCAR season. Dale Jr. is very much engaged these days. He's become far more relevant than a piece of NASCAR eye-candy who has won the sport's most popular driver award for 11 consecutive years. He is definitely in the conversation again about Chase contenders.

Dale Jr. is OK with all of that. He talks about "unfinished business." It has nothing to do with winning another popularity contest. It has everything to do with winning a NASCAR Cup title.

"Absolutely," Dale Jr. said during pre-season testing at Daytona International Speedway this weekend. "With the way we ran last year — getting a real sense that we were starting to compete at that level as a team that had the opportunity to win the championship — that felt really good. It got really exciting. I think we have an opportunity. Our time is now.

"If we can continue to do that and keep applying ourselves and keep working and not get complacent about certain things, then we can be one of those teams that are sitting there in Homestead with a shot at it. I really believe that."

Earnhardt's reason to believe is etched in the success of 2012. Earnhardt led the points standings at one juncture, broke a 143-race winless streak by capturing a victory at Michigan last June, qualified for the Chase and then saw it all unravel after he was forced to sit out two starts because of race-related concussions late in the season.

It bounced him to the bottom of the pile among the 12 contenders, leaving him wondering what could have been had things not been hampered by his compromised health.

"I only look back on the positives when I think about last year," he said. "To find motivation and excitement, I look back on how well we performed throughout the year. How we were leading the points and how things were going mid-point in the season. How strong we were in the summer, which had been traditionally for me a terrible time."

His confidence is a by-product of something else: Dale Jr. needed someone to draw him out of his ambivalence and insecurities. He seems to have found that soothing voice in Steve Letarte, his crew chief since the 2011 season.

"His dad was a lot like that," said Larry McReynolds, a NASCAR TV analyst and former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Sr. "His dad, believe it or not, needed a cheerleader. As long as you were cheerleading him, he would perform.

"And I'm telling you, Dale Jr. is even more that way. As long as he thinks everyone is rallying around him, he'll perform. But if he thinks people are starting to get down on him, he doesn't perform. He needs that cheerleader. And there ain't a better cheerleader in the garage area than Steve Letarte."

NASCAR's enigmatic son pushes on, hoping for a smooth ride free of the baggage he's dragged around all these years.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

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