Earnhardt Jr. won the Subway Jalapeño 250 Nationwide Series race here on Friday, his first trip to Victory Lane since winning a Cup race at Texas in 2008.
That win came just seven races into his new career with Hendrick Motorsports, a much-hyped move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. in which Dale Jr. became perhaps the most sought after free agent Cup driver in history.
Since that first year – he won just the one race in 2008 – Earnhardt has had to constantly answer questions regarding whether he has the same passion he once did as he has struggled to find success on the track. Off the track, Earnhardt has no such concerns as he has a number of lucrative deals with such sponsors as Pepsi-Co., Wrangler and Adidas.
“I think people can stop questioning my commitment, whether I care, whether I have the passion anymore,'' he said, mixing in a few curse words for effect. “I mean, I can't work any harder than I am working right now. I can't. This is all I got.''
Earnhardt did agree that Saturday's trip to Victory Lane could be good for his race psyche.
“This helps my confidence,'' he said. “Anytime you win, you do good, I think that happens.''
Last year was extremely tough on Earnhardt and his team. As he watched fellow Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon all advanced to the chase for the championship, Earnhardt struggled and pulled down only three top 10 finishes in his first 22 races.
In May, after a 40th place finish at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, Hendrick made a change, replacing Earnhardt's longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr. with Lance McGrew. Eury Jr., Earnhardt's first cousin, was Earnhardt's crew chief in Friday's race.
This year, Earnhardt is ranked 13th and has five top 10 finishes – matching last year's total – through the first 17 races.
Earnhardt, driving an Impala designed to honor his late father, took the lead in Lap 70 of the 100-lap race on Friday and held off the field to get his first Nationwide Series win since 2006. Earnhardt runs a very limited schedule on NASCAR's second tiered series, saying winning at that level isn't what he wants to do.
Earnhardt does have 23 such wins to his credit, including six at Daytona. He will probably run Nationwide events at Daytona in the future, giving him a chance to catch his dad. Earnhardt Sr. won seven Busch Series races at Daytona.
“Every win, I just soak it up like a sponge because we've had such a trying time the past few years,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. “I saw where Daddy had two more Nationwide wins than I did, so I got a little closer to him there.''
-- The start of Saturday's Cup race was delayed almost two hours because of rain.
-- Bobby Labonte made his 600th Cup start and was the race's Grand Marshall. He gave the start engines order while seated in his car on pit road.