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Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates with the Junior Nation

Dale Jr. (white) celebrates with crew chief Steve Letarte and owner Rick Hendrick
Dale Jr. (white) celebrates with crew chief Steve Letarte and owner Rick Hendrick
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Third-generation NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew he was being called “overrated,” knew people thought he didn’t care about winning – some of the talk was beginning to bother him.

“We weren't running good,” said Earnhardt Jr. in a recent teleconference. “We were struggling. I think people underestimated how much I care about performance. I don't think people realized how much winning mattered to me. When you look at the critics and you look at their comments, aside from people saying I was overrated, they would always say I didn't have killer instinct, I didn't have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship, I didn't want it bad enough.”

If there was a question about his wanting to win, there was an answer on Sunday night following the Daytona 500 in the form of a win, his second in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” and his first since 2004.

“I never was bothered by being called 'overrated' because it's such a broad term,” continued Earnhardt Jr. “When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did, because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death. I would do anything for NASCAR. I'd do anything for the health of the sport. I'd sacrifice anything for it.”

A strong statement from a driver whose father, the late seven-time champion, did sacrifice for the sport in the ultimate way – a sacrifice that has made the sport safer, but has still left a hole in the hearts of millions of fans.

In the ultimate plot twist in motorsports, Sunday’s race also marked the return of the No. 3 that Dale Earnhardt made famous, with young Austin Dillon behind the wheel and starting from the pole – almost as if the race started in the past and ended in the present.

“I thought about holding the three fingers running down the front straightaway,” said Earnhardt Jr. of his victory lap. “I didn't want to bring too much attention to that. I just want Steve and Rick and the team, everybody, to enjoy this experience as it should. But, you know, it felt so comfortable all week for that number to be back. I'm happy with that situation. I'm happy for Austin. You guys have gotten to know him over the last couple years. He's got a great head on his shoulders. He appreciates the history of the number. He appreciates not only what it meant as an Earnhardt fan, but what it meant for his family. It means something entirely unique to him separate of my father. I appreciate that and I'm happy for him and Richard. They're really enjoying that experience together. That's got to be something special, grandfather and grandson, to be able to do that together. I'm very comfortable. I had not thought about it once all week 'cause it just seems right.”

NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last 11 years, Earnhardt Jr. knew his “Junior Nation” would be partying after this victory, but had not expected the outpouring of emotion. “It gets me emotional seeing their emotions because I know what the win means to me,” confided Earnhardt Jr. “To see what it means for someone else, how it affects someone else is such a reward. It's a really awesome thing when you can do something that brings joy to someone else. There's no greater feeling for me anyway.”

With the Junior Nation firmly behind him, Earnhardt Jr. is happy to be a cog in the wheel of the sport that he loves. “I represent my fan base and the people that support our team,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I think the sport is really kind of divided into the particular supporting systems for each driver. You have the fans of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart. I think we all represent our own fan base. There's people out there that enjoy our sport that aren't particularly fans of mine. I don't carry the whole sport on my shoulders. We have enough personalities in the sport to do that individually. There's tons of great storylines out there with the 3 coming back, Austin Dillon, all the rookies coming into the series, all the rookies coming into the Nationwide Series, Tony Stewart coming back, Danica's first couple years trying to get her legs, trying to get going.”

“There's a lot of good things happening in the sport that are relevant,” he continued. “I just feel like a part of it. Definitely got to stand on the center stage this past weekend by winning the Daytona 500. But I never would assume that I was the face of the sport, even though some people have said that before. I don't think that's the case at all.”

Quotes in this piece provided by NASCAR.

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