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Confidence is the ultimate x factor in stock car racing. When a driver has it, he can make moves on the track seemingly cribbed from a video game, brazenly bumping others out of the way, controlling his car at 190 mph in traffic as if swiveling a joystick. When he doesn't have confidence, the driver questions everything—what setup changes he needs during a pit stop, how fast he can go into a turn without losing control, how much room he has to make a pass—and that translates into one thing: slow.
Bring up the subject of confidence to Dale Earnhardt Jr.—the son of the Intimidator, the most self-assured driver in NASCAR history—and the often reticent 35-year-old will launch into a lengthy monologue. "Confidence is something you simply have to have as a race car driver," Earnhardt says. "It's no secret that I've struggled with this. When things go bad, man, it snowballs, and it's hard to get that edge back. But I feel like I'm getting closer to where I need to be."
Indeed, for the first time since 2006, when Earnhardt finished fifth in the final standings, NASCAR's most popular driver is emerging from a befuddling mid-career funk. After he finished 30th at Dover on May 16, Earnhardt fell to 16th in the standings. How shot was his confidence? At Dover he brought his number 88 Chevy onto pit road during a green flag run, convinced his car was "broken." Turned out nothing was wrong, but by the time his crew discovered that, Earnhardt was seven laps down.
At that point his season looked lost—he even started to hear boos during prerace introductions—but over the last month Earnhardt has surged. For the first time in more than two years he has had four straight finishes of 11th or better and is now 11th in the standings. On Saturday night at Daytona he struggled for most of the Coke Zero 400 with a poor-handling car, riding around the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 25th place or worse. But with 12 laps left, he deftly avoided a host of spinning cars and emerged unscathed from the Big One that did in 20 drivers. He then pitted, ordered a few adjustments and passed more cars in the final laps to finish fourth behind winner Kevin Harvick. This impressive late-race rebound came a day after Earnhardt won his first Nationwide race since August 2006—another tangible sign of his growing confidence.
So how to explain this renaissance? "He's now digging as hard as he can on every lap of every practice session and on every lap of every race," says Lance McGrew, Earnhardt's crew chief. "Sometimes we would give up during a race. Not anymore. The concentration level is just so much higher."
Shortly after climbing out of his car early on Sunday morning, Earnhardt headed for his private jet. "We're getting closer," he said. Then, walking through the darkness, he did something telling.
He smiled, big and brilliant. It was the classic Earnhardt look.
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