Tom Time Blog: Why Junior Could Be Poised For a Breakout Year

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Blog by RaceChaser Online Senior Editor  Tom Baker – Photo By Getty Images/NASCAR

“The real reward for winning the race is seeing the joy it brings other people.” – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in an interview on ESPN’s Sportscenter – February 25, 2014

That quote says alot about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

In the years since his father’s death I have often felt bad for Junior.  I’m sure it was hard enough to be the son of an Icon who was still riding the crest of his highest wave when Junior arrived on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and everyone heaped natural but unfortunate and probably unwanted expectations and coronation on the young man.

Then to suddenly lose his father in a Daytona 500 crash and have all that added weight and pressure to live up to the “brand” and lofty accomplishments must have been terribly difficult for a young man of 26 years who likely just wanted to race, enjoy life and be himself.

When people speak badly of him as a racer or make remarks about him not being worthy somehow of his place in the sport, it pains me.  Those people haven’t ever and couldn’t ever walk a mile in his shoes.

He didn’t ask to be the son of a legend nor did he ever tell anyone (as far as I know) that he was as good or even thought he could ever be as good or accomplish as much in the sport as his father.

Junior has just always wanted to be Junior.

I can remember times when I’d see him interviewed and he’d be looking down at his feet as if he was uncomfortable or nervous.  There were those seasons where the performance just wasn’t there and the criticism and jokes were rampant.

It just seemed as if he wasn’t himself at times and struggled to find ways to express his thoughts.  I don’t know if that was true, but if it were, could you blame him?

How do you grow up, as Junior did, in the shadow of fame and adoration, step into the spotlight at such a young age and then have millions of people watching as you do your best to suddenly balance living up to others’ expectations, carrying on a legacy and trying to somehow come to terms with the death of your father all at the same time?

I have no way of knowing if or how everything Junior’s been through played into his on-track struggles over the years or the interviews where he at times seemed almost weary or lost. But wouldn’t it be logical that it would?

It can take years for people to get past a tragedy or loss in their lives.  Some never do.

With all the hype surrounding the return of the No. 3 his father made famous to the ‘Cup series this year and the emotional freight of all the memories that has had to trigger for him, he has carried himself the entire time with grace and confidence.

Watching him in victory lane and then in some of his media appearances through the week including The Late Show with David Letterman on Monday night and ESPN’s Sportscenter on Tuesday he seemed to be having fun and enjoying himself.

How could you not be happy for him?

Junior raced the 500 in a far more aggressive way than he has in quite a while.  Being second in three of the last four 500’s likely had something to do with that. He said as much on Letterman’s show and added he thought that all the driving was much more aggressive this year and that it was one of the hardest Daytona 500 races he’s been involved in.

As Junior goes into the Phoenix race this weekend, I can’t help but think that this season could well be a breakout year.  I say that not because he won Daytona or even because he was perhaps the most consistent driver in the series last year with ten top five finishes and five seconds.

I say that because it seems that he’s become a wiser, more focused, more contented version of the fun-loving, spirited young racer who won six times in 2004 and has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last 11 straight seasons.

That could spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E for everyone else who has to do battle with him for a championship he’s always badly wanted to win.

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