January 13, 2013 in Sports

Earnhardt Jr. a NASCAR contender in 2013

George Diaz Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel
 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – 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 preseason 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.

“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.”

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