Winning the Daytona 500 is like becoming the Heisman Trophy recipient.
A media tour begins, but the season is not over.
Many Heisman winners have struggled in bowl games. Now, Dale Earnhardt Jr. faces the challenge of having to focus with nearly an entire NASCAR Sprint Cup season still ahead, including Sunday’s race in the Phoenix area and one March 9 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But Earnhardt said going from Daytona Beach, Fla., to New York to Bristol, Conn., to Austin, Texas, and to Los Angeles actually helped him.
“I’m in contact with my engineers and my crew chief, Steve Letarte,” Earnhardt said. “They’re feeding me information that I need to prepare for this weekend. We should be fine. If I weren’t doing this media tour, I’d just be sitting around the house really accomplishing nothing at all.
“We’re going to get to Phoenix kind of early, actually, so I might even be better prepared than we typically were.”
Winning Daytona puts Earnhardt in excellent position to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. More emphasis is placed on winning in the new elimination format. If the same format had been in place last season, Earnhardt would have won his first Cup championship.
He has made the Chase in the last three seasons, finishing fifth in 2013. He ended last season with four top-four finishes in five events.
“This is probably the best opportunity I’ve had in a while, if not ever, to compete for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been steadily getting better each year. The team has stayed intact throughout the last several years.”
His success could help Earnhardt shed his image that he doesn’t care enough.
“It does bother you when people question your desire,” Earnhardt by phone Wednesday. “You’re showing up trying to race every week, trying your best to get going and trying your best to do as good as you can. ... Everybody out there is driving their guts out. You don’t make it to that level in any profession without having a tremendous amount of courage and drive. You would be chewed up and spit out in no time.”
Earnhardt downplays his impact on his sport, saying others such as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have their loyal followings, but fans have voted Earnhardt NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past 11 years.
Fox analyst Larry McReynolds even referred to Junior as “our Tiger Woods.”
“When Tiger is playing well and leading tournaments, there are a lot more eyeballs on the PGA,” McReynolds said. “When Dale Jr. is performing well and is a contender, there are more eyeballs on our sport. I bet ticket sales jumped up at Phoenix on Monday morning.”
Should Earnhardt win again this weekend, that wouldn’t hurt ticket sales in Las Vegas, either.
His Daytona win was his second in that race. Earnhardt said afterward this one meant more than the win in 2004. He maintained that stance Wednesday, saying turning 40 and being “on the back side” of his career made it special.
“When I won the first time, I was much younger and my priorities were a little bit jumbled,” Earnhardt said. “My life wasn’t in complete order like it is now. I’ve got things going in a better direction now. I’ve got a little bit better understanding of what’s important in life, and appreciate things a little bit better.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.