CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans fill the infield. He’s mobbed wherever he goes at his home track. Lines wind around the corner to get into his nearby nightclub.
The brand remains strong. It’s just on the track where NASCAR’s most popular driver is still finding success elusive.
Welcome home, Junior. Now why aren’t you winning?
"I would not trade places with him," teammate Mark Martin said Friday. "Absolutely not."
Junior acknowledged the gripping pressure after consecutive 27th-place finishes left him 18th in the Sprint Cup standings, far from where his fans expected when he moved to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports last year.
"He’s probably right. I don’t think I’d want to put anybody in my shoes — maybe an enemy or two," Earnhardt said of Martin’s sympathy. "There are good days and bad days. You’ve got a lot to complain about and you’ve got a lot of things to be grateful for."
Save for a second-place finish at Talladega, little has gone right for the No. 88 team in a season marred by pit road trouble, communication woes and a post-race skirmish with Casey Mears at Phoenix.
Earnhardt has three top-10 finishes — and six of 20th or worse.
After just one victory a year ago and quickly fading from contention once he made the Chase for the championship in his Hendrick debut, there have been calls to replace his crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr. Owner Rick Hendrick has defended the team, but acknowledged they’ve had numerous meetings on how to end Junior’s funk.
"I haven’t changed my position. There’s so much pressure on all of them guys, we’ve just got to take a deep breath," Hendrick said. "He’s under the spotlight. We’re not happy about it and we’re working on it. I’ve just never been the kind of person who rips stuff up and says lets just try new things."
The trouble is finding and fixing what’s wrong, while Earnhardt tries to fight off negativity that he said "can make you into a real jerk." Junior was searching for that balance as prepares for Saturday’s All-Star race and next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, just miles from his hometown.
"When you’re running bad, you’re just a target," Earnhardt said. "And you’re angry because you’re running bad, and frustrated. You can’t win for losing. If you get angry you’re a (jerk). If you take it on the chin you don’t care.
"Everybody’s got an opinion of you. You just move on."
From the grim looks of his crew as they shuffled in and out his hauler after All-Star practice Friday afternoon, the team is need of some good fortune.
"Where they’re at right now is they just need to not let the pressure get them so tight that they can’t perform at their best level," Martin said. "So my advice to Junior was, ‘Hey this is All-Star weekend. Come here and take a deep breath and take a deep breath for your team and go out here and have some fun and let this thing come to you.’
"It’s going to come around. It’s going to come around for those guys."
Success has come quickly for Martin, though. The 50-year-old has two wins in his first season with Hendrick, which has further highlighted Junior’s troubles.
"I’m all right," Earnhardt said. "I appreciate Mark’s concern and he’s always been a great supporter of me. It feels good for him to recognize my position and how life is."