June 22, 2012
By Rebecca Gladden
So, Tony Stewart doesn’t think Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Michigan on Sunday, his first in four years, was a big deal.
“It's not a national holiday,” Stewart groused after the race.
Fair enough. I will concede that Earnhardt’s win is not, technically, a reason to declare a national holiday.
But Stewart’s apparent lack of insight into the significance of this victory is misguided at best.
Back in 2004, when I first began writing a weekly NASCAR column, I started what was intended to be a series of articles creating the “Six Million Dollar NASCAR Driver” - à la TV’s “Six Million Dollar Man,” who was made “better, stronger, faster” thanks to bionic parts.
I set out to write about some of NASCAR’s top stars in 2004, contemplating which singular quality I would extract from each man to assemble my ‘perfect’ driver.
Although I never finished the series, I did get installments written for three drivers: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Stewart, I chose the quality of ‘intensity.’
For Gordon, it was ‘talent.’
And for Earnhardt Jr., it was ‘resiliency.’
Dale Jr.’s years in the NASCAR Cup Series have played out like a modern day Greek tragedy, consisting of triumphs and traumas that separate him from other racers leading relatively normal lives.
As explained in the Wikipedia article on Greek Tragedies, “The philosopher Aristotle said in his work Poetics that tragedy is characterized by seriousness and dignity and involving a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune. Aristotle's definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good, as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad, as in Oedipus Rex, is preferable because this effects pity and fear within the spectators. Tragedy results in a catharsis (emotional cleansing) or healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama.”
What Earnhardt’s fans experienced on Sunday was that catharsis - that emotional cleansing - as Dale Jr. once again demonstrated his remarkable ability to bounce back from adversity.
Although his latest trial - a four-year winless streak during which he finished second seven times - may not have been as dramatic as some of the others struggles he’s faced, the mounting pressure on him to win (and growing criticism about his inability to do so) was in desperate need of relief.
In case you missed it the first time around, here is my original article, “The Resilient Dale Earnhardt Jr.” from 2004.
I hope Tony Stewart reads it.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wears his heart on his sleeve. When he's happy, his smile can light up a room. When he wins a big race, he leaps off his car window with youthful glee into the arms of his proud crew, never questioning for a second whether they will be there to catch him.
Dale Jr. has had good reason to celebrate this year, starting with an important victory in the Daytona 500, the biggest Cup race of all. After his win, Earnhardt's joy was unbridled: “This is awesome!” he exclaimed. “This is the greatest race, this is the greatest day of my life, and I can't really describe it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to tell this story to anybody and get it right. This is just a great feeling.”
His sweep of the 2004 Bristol weekend was another meaningful win, partly because he grew up watching his dad race there. “I came to a lot of races here when my dad drove them,” Junior explained shortly after his Cup win. “He had some great races here. That's why this place is so magical to me. I've wanted to win here so bad. I never thought I'd win a Busch race and a Cup race the same weekend at Bristol. Good Lord! What a great day!”
Daytona in February and Bristol in August. Two important achievements on Junior's 2004 resume. But between those peaks was a very dark valley. Practicing for a Le Mans race in July on a weekend off from his NASCAR duties, Earnhardt suffered serious burns when his car crashed, igniting gas from a full fuel tank. He appeared to be immobile in the car for several seconds as the cockpit quickly filled with fire. After being airlifted to a local hospital, fans learned that he had suffered second-degree burns to his face, neck, and legs.
No one would have blamed Earnhardt had he taken a few weeks off to recover from his injuries. Anyone who has suffered a minor kitchen burn knows how painful it is, and Junior's burns were many times worse, both in size and severity. If he was to race any time soon, he would have to endure several uncomfortable hours in a stuffy race car, where summertime temperatures often exceed 130°, wearing a scratchy firesuit over thick bandages. Driver Kenny Wallace spoke later about the burn to Earnhardt's neck: “(In the Le Mans car) he had his drink tube on the left side of his neck because, in road racing, they've got to get in and out of the car. The drink tube got so hot that it melted against his neck. That's incredibly painful.”
But surrender is not the racing way. One day after the accident, Dale Jr. was released from the hospital. The next day, he discontinued all narcotic pain medications in advance of the upcoming race just five days away.
Junior started the New Hampshire race that weekend in severe pain. Risking infection, dehydration and further injury, he completed 60 laps before being lifted out of the car by crew members and replaced with a substitute driver. Earnhardt's face was one of anguish throughout the race weekend, particularly when his crew had to force his burned left leg to bend in order to get it in the car. “My injuries really, really hurt bad,” he reported after exiting the car. “It's a pain I never felt before.”
Casual onlookers may have wondered if Earnhardt's decision to race was careless, even foolhardy (he did have his doctor's permission). But race fans know that resiliency - the ability to recover readily from adversity, depression, injury and the like - is the mark of a winner. Earnhardt needed the points to stay in contention for the championship, and he felt a deep sense of obligation to his team be in the car despite the pain.
In his relatively short Cup career, Dale Jr. has had several opportunities - probably more than he ever wanted - to demonstrate his ability to be resilient.
In his rookie season, Junior's fans shared in an emotional high when he won the 2000 All-Star race, the first rookie ever to do so. He was greeted in Victory Lane by his elated papa, Dale Earnhardt Sr., seven-time Winston Cup champion. Earnhardt Jr. still calls it his proudest moment.
Less than a year later, the Earnhardt's Senior and Junior were running second and third in the final lap of the Daytona 500, with teammate Michael Waltrip in the lead. As the world now knows, Dale Sr. died in an improbable crash just seconds before his son crossed the finish line. What would have been one of NASCAR's most memorable days disintegrated into it's most tragic, as millions of horrified fans looked on.
After his father's death, Earnhardt Jr. endured both incredible introspection and unyielding scrutiny. The weight of the racing world was on his shoulders now, and he knew it. The fans had lost a legend. Dale Jr. had lost his father. Many wondered whether they could continue to support the sport they loved. Dale Jr. wondered whether he could - or should - ever race again.
NASCAR was devastated, and its ability to recover, it seemed, was completely dependent on his ability to do so.
The following weekend, Earnhardt Jr. arrived at the Dura Lube 400 ready to run. But in a cruel twist of fate, he crashed out of the race early on. “I hate it for Junior because this would have really (taken) his mind off it for quite a while, just getting one race behind him,” said cousin and crew member Tony Eury Jr.
Observers speculated that the pressure had been too much for him to withstand, that the distractions of the week - which included burying his father - were just too difficult to overcome.
For several weeks the world watched as Dale Jr. continued to race, but he was clearly just going through the motions. As he waged an internal struggle with depression, uncertainty, and profound sadness, the Pepsi 400 - NASCAR's upcoming race at the Daytona Speedway - loomed large in the road ahead.
July 7, 2001. Less than five months after his dad's death, Dale Jr. returned to the track where his father had taken his last breath. In a demonstration of true grit, he won the race.
Climbing to the top of his car in the infield, Junior thrust his arms in the air victoriously as a hundred thousand fans cheered him with one voice. “He was with me tonight,” Earnhardt Jr. said in an emotionally charged Victory Lane interview. “I dedicate this win to him.”
Resiliency had never been needed more, and he had summoned it in dramatic fashion.
Just two months later, NASCAR and the world faced another tragedy - the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Major sporting events were suspended as the country wondered whether things would ever be normal again. Twelve days later, Dale Jr. won the first post-9/11 Cup race.
This time, however, there was no lavish burnout or exuberant celebration. He took a solitary victory lap around Dover Speedway, holding an American flag out the driver's side window.
It was an understated display worthy of the circumstances. “I don't think it would have mattered who would have won this race,” he confided afterward. “The fact that we're here and we ran it and we're driving and we're racing is healing enough.”
Which brings us back to 2004. Dale Jr. heads into the Chase for the Championship third in points - impressive considering the burns he suffered just two months ago. His team fell into a slump after the incident, including the two races in which Junior reluctantly turned the car over to a substitute driver. While it has taken several weeks to recover, the Bud boys are heading into the Chase with some positive momentum.
Racing has always been a sport of highs and lows, victories and defeats. Incidents that make the difference between taking the checkered flag and taking a trip to the infield care center are often beyond a racer's control.
But the drive to recover from adversity, not just once but time and again, comes from within.
In only four years of Cup racing, Dale Jr.'s resiliency has been sorely tested. He has not only survived, but thrived under very trying circumstances. “It's been kind of tough,” Earnhardt commented after Bristol. “But when we win like this, it makes it more special.
“You can't be Number One all the time. But that makes the wins sweeter.”
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