DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was a moment late in the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a moment to catch his breath. It was clearly his race to lose and the tension ran thick through Junior Nation, all the way into his car.
Steve Letarte, the crew chief and cheerleader who had rebuilt Earnhardt’s crumpled confidence and returned him to a championship contender, used the moment under caution to settle his driver.
“Having fun?” Letarte said over the radio.
“Yeah, but it’s the big prize, man. It’s hard to enjoy it,” Earnhardt said, before he paused. “I’m enjoying particular pieces of it, but the entire experience is driving me crazy.”
That’s the albatross that was strapped to the back of NASCAR’s most popular driver as closed in on his second Daytona 500 victory. It had been 10 years since he won his first 500, and after three runner-up finishes the last four seasons in a race that had caused his family so much heartache and joy, the moment was overwhelming.
There’s so much pressure on Earnhardt, who entered the season-opening showcase mired in a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012. He’d won just two races since joining mighty Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, and as he closes in on his 40th birthday, he is still searching for his first Cup championship.
It’s been openly stated by the suits at NASCAR that when Junior wins, NASCAR’s popularity surges. So under that theory, if he could just get it together, the days of flat television numbers and sagging attendance would certainly spike.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy, and it hit him as he readied himself for the homestretch Sunday night.
“It’s a big race and you want to win it so badly, and your team wants to win so badly,” he said afterward. “You realize at that moment that there are countless people watching on television and there are countless people sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, and your team is over on the pit wall and your family back home — there are so many people pulling for you and want to see you win. It’s a heavy weight.”