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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s about time

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, celebrates with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, celebrates with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, celebrates with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, celebrates with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, celebrates with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, celebrates with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Okay, so what does Dale Earnhardt Jr. do for an encore?

He needs an encore, I think, to complete the picture. In fact, he needs to win the championship, and he’s off to a good start.

Winning the Daytona 500, which Junior did Sunday, is great, a big deal for any Sprint Cup driver. The Daytona 500 is the sport’s unofficial Super Bowl, ushering in a new season each February.

But when your name is Dale Earnhardt Jr. and you’ve secured the financial backing that Junior has, the expectations speed at you like a stock car roaring down a straightaway.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy. I root for him every time Cup drivers compete here, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. They’ll race in Loudon on July 13 and again Sept. 21.

Years back in my sportswriting days, while he was tearing up the Nationwide Series, (one step below the

Cup tour), I met Junior at an indoor go-kart facility in Braintree, Mass.

It was before his father died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and before expectations for him had risen so high.

I hung around late, waiting to speak to him alone. After a 10-minute interview, his public relations guy told me I had to leave.

“He’s fine,” I recall Junior telling him. “I’ll talk some more.”

Since then, Junior has been named the Cup’s most popular driver 11 straight years, a record. His father’s death added mystique and sympathy for a driver who was already wildly popular.

In later years, I got tossed out of Kevin Harvick’s hauler for writing that fans and drivers thought he was a jerk.

Tony Stewart growled at me for reporting that he’d slapped an on-track medical official after a crash.

And after races here, Dale Sr., looking like a state trooper with mustache and dark shades, moved to his private helicopter in the speedway’s infield with a crisp walk that had me jogging beside him, fumbling with my notepad and pen.

But Junior always tried to accommodate the media and his fans. It’s just become harder and harder for him to do.

His press conferences are closely monitored by an entourage of team and security members. He’s Justin Bieber after a concert – easily recognizable, forever chased by fans.

The innocent spark I once saw in Braintree and at the speedway in Loudon is gone, replaced by questions about his skill and comparisons to his dad, whose icy stare has got to be somewhere in Junior’s mind, pushing him to win championships.

Dale Sr. won seven tour titles by the time he died in that crash at the ’01 Daytona 500.

Junior has none, and I think the pressure is wearing on him, despite his continued graciousness, a demeanor nicer than most other drivers, if not all of them.

To be fair, lots of great drivers have never won a points championship. Mark Martin comes to mind. And Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

Some of Junior’s fans will defend him, saying he’s won the Daytona 500 twice. He’s taken the checkered flag 20 times in the sport’s elite circuit. He won consecutive championships in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR’s top feeder tour to the Cup, in 1998 and ’99.

But you think that’s enough to make Junior whole, in a sport sense?

It’s not.

And he knows it.

Junior knows his place in sports history, where he is and where fans expect him to go. He’ll be 40 in October, one month before the end of his 15th Cup season.

That’s why Sunday’s season opening win was so big. It was delayed more than six hours by rain, and it could serve later as a metaphor for greatness after a long delay.

The win ended a 55-race losing steak and was Junior’s first Cup victory since 2012. In fact, he’d won just four races since his only other Daytona 500 win, in 2004.

Now he leads the point standings heading into Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway. We’ll know more by the time the circuit rolls into New Hampshire in five months, and we’ll know even more when it returns two months after that.

Maybe Junior will be leading the points chase by that second race. Maybe he’ll win his first overall title in November so columns like this one, questioning his place in history, will disappear.

The NASCAR community says this is Junior’s best chance for a championship, with the right crew chief, the right amount of experience and the right launching pad, Sunday’s win, to finally do it.

Junior’s post-race address Sunday in Victory Lane said a lot, what he said and how he said it.

“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in the world,” he proclaimed.

Then he continued, after a quick pause.

“Aside from obviously accepting the trophy for the championship.”

You could almost see his father, nudging Junior from behind.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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