SONOMA, Calif. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. understood his victory last Sunday at Michigan was a big moment.
It had been four years and 143 races between checkered flags.
Still, Earnhardt wasnt fully prepared for the overwhelming response to his win.
Its always bigger, the real reaction, than what you imagined, Earnhardt said Friday at Sonoma, where he will try to post his first top-10 finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on the twisting, hilly road course at Sonoma.
Reactions big and small, from friends to musician Charlie Daniels tweeting about it to seeing his fellow drivers come to Victory Lane to congratulate him last week, humbled Earnhardt. He told the story related to him by a friend of an ailing relative who has difficulty recognizing his children but was talking afterward about Earnhardts victory.
It makes a big difference in a lot of peoples lives. It was pretty amazing to hear something like that and other stories like that, Earnhardt said. You dont ever take it for granted that people are tuned in that much.
All kinds of good stuff like that is happening. Makes it pretty cool.
It speaks primarily to Earnhardts enormous popularity and the pent-up anticipation of his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports, but it also reinforces the No. 88 teams potential to challenge for the Sprint Cup championship this season. He is second in points, four behind leader Matt Kenseth, as the season enters the final 10 races before the Chase for the Championship begins.
Earnhardt has not been lower than sixth in points this year as he and crew chief Steve Letarte have found a rhythm in their second year together. Unlike some recent years, when there were questions about whether Earnhardt would make the Chase, the topic has changed to whether he can win his first championship.
We havent really competed for a title yet but this seems to be my best opportunity, Earnhardt said. I expect to be in that conversation as long as we keep up our consistency.
(Winning) helps us feel like we can compete. We went out there and won a race. I dont know what everybody else thinks outside our team, but for us it makes us more hungry. Its good to know we can do it. Its good to know we got it done. We want to go do it again.
A teammate watches
Jeff Gordon, who has won four championships, has watched Earnhardts development over the years, particularly since he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He paid special attention to how Earnhardt handled the growing questions about when he would win again.
When he came to Hendrick, he knew that was a big step and big decision and a lot of added pressure, Gordon said. It takes a few checkmarks off the excuse list as to why things havent gone the way they did when he first came into the sport and why he hasnt won championships. That choice, which was a big one, says a lot about him because he wanted to be at the best place.
When (winning) didnt happen, that only adds to that frustration and pressure. Its easy to get yourself down. Its a lot harder to climb yourself back up.
Now 37, Earnhardt said his lifestyle has changed this year. He spends less time on the computer than he did and more time working on racing. He plays softball for the JR Motorsports team thats in the playoffs in Mooresville, playing on a field not far from where Earnhardt lives.
Fun at Sonoma
Driving road courses doesnt come naturally to Earnhardt, who grew up racing on ovals. He likes it, though, and talked about the fun he has at Sonoma despite mediocre results.
Earnhardt likens road-course racing to playing golf. If you dont practice it regularly, you cant expect to be good at it. If he runs well this weekend, hell be excited. If not, Earnhardt said he wont dwell on it. Too much good has been happening.
I dont know if momentum whether its real or not, Earnhardt said. You just kind of keep going to the race track, keep studying and testing and trying to bring the best thing you can to the race track. Were feeling really good about what were doing.
You just try to keep doing your job, doing it even better. You ask yourself every day, can I work harder, can I be smarter, what can I do to bring even more to the table? You cant ever get complacent or feel like even though youre doing good that its good enough. In this sport, theres always someone else about to step it up a notch and youve got to be working all the time to stay ahead of the game or stay even with the competition.
Green: 704-358-5118; Twitter: @RonGreenJr