Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s confidence game

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There you go, Junior Nation. There's the red meat you've been starving for after living on scraps for so long. This is a porterhouse.

And because NASCAR annually serves its entree first, opening the season with its biggest race, just be aware that there are several more courses to come, for you and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

        

How does it feel to feast a decade after America's Driver got his first Daytona 500 win and set off toward his best run at a Cup championship, in 2004?

From then until now -- until this second Daytona 500 win and the earliest playoff berth ever seized in any sport -- came the lean years, the gaunt ones, the era of struggle for you and Your Man, when the worst burden he carried was disappointing you.

I saw him suffering, up close. Mainly he was suffering for you.

        

Déjà vu has been a long time coming, huh? But 2014 could turn out better than mere déjà vu.

This time, it might be time.

He's in the Chase already, barring what would be the damnedest fluke in the history of NASCAR, a season that would yield more than 16 race winners -- and that's assuming he doesn't win some more this year.

And it sure looks and feels as if he will.

Now, he is free of fretting over season points just to make the playoffs. "We'll go ahead and concentrate on winning more races," he said in the wee hours of Monday. The more he wins, the higher his seed. Now he can go all-out, all he wants.

So this could be the season when NASCAR's most popular driver transforms into America's Driver, for who on earth could not be for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who turns 40 in October, after he has labored so hard, so long, so terribly, in the unshakable shadow of a father who won the championship seven times.

So there you go, NASCAR. There's the billowing of the public fire that has flickered, almost down to embers, since 2001, when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Thirty-five more races remain to test your radical rule changes for this season, mainly the "win and you're in" format for your playoffs.

But so far, so spectacular.

You're gambling with the future of your league, but on the very first spin, the roulette ball stopped on the jackpot number for you, 88.

Poor Jimmie Johnson. He has won so much, the masses have come to yearn for an antidote for his dominance. Now, even the most passionate fans of the six-time champion can't help but have a soft spot for Junior.

Take Johnson's own mentor and car owner, Jeff Gordon, who has a financial stake in Johnson's every win and title, as a partner in Hendrick Motorsports, where Earnhardt works, too.

"The world is right, right now," Gordon said after aerodynamically pushing teammate Earnhardt to help hold off late challenges from Greg Biffle, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin on Sunday night.

How dare I, who questioned as much as anyone whether Earnhardt would ever bounce back from the lean years, think he just might go all the way to the title this time?

I've said and written for nearly a decade that what he lacks is confidence in himself -- confidence that he could please you, deliver on the towering hopes of the legions who live vicariously through him, somehow even more than they did through his father.

"Confidence," he said after midnight, "is half the battle."

Nah, it's more than that, for him. Maybe 80 percent. He has the finest equipment from Hendrick, the same as Johnson and Gordon have. And Sunday night he showed he can still be the best restrictor-plate racer of all, when the car and his mind are right.

The confidence came gushing out in torrents Sunday night and early Monday, confidence that he can please you after all. And that may well be a watershed in his life.

He laid some foundation last year, running steadily strong, across the board of NASCAR track configurations, with or without restrictor plates, finishing fifth in the points although he didn't win a race.

"We have a lot of confidence coming off such a strong year, and [now] obviously winning this race," he said. "Our confidence couldn't be higher."

He and the 88 were the best driver and the best car in the Daytona 500 since his father dominated the 1990 race, only to run over shrapnel in the third turn on the last lap and fall one mile short of winning.

No driver ever made a car a part of himself quite like his father did. Until Sunday night.

"That car I drove, we got along," Junior said. "We worked as a unit. It just happens."

At the crescendo of the race, flying through the final laps, swarmed by challengers, he was thinking, most of all, of you.

"You realize at that moment there's countless people watching on television, there's countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on," he said.

"There's so many people pulling for you, who want to see you win. It's a heavy weight."

All those years he felt he was letting you down, he never felt you let him down.

"The lows you go through, they're with you," he said of you. "We went through some pretty bad lows. They're still there." All of you, he meant.

And so he said, "When I drove down that front straightaway ... it seemed like everybody here was cheering...

"I really feed off that. That is as key to the moment, enjoying the moment, as anything."

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