The now two-time Daytona 500 winner says he's incredibly grateful to Hendrick Motorsports and his Junior Nation fan base
Two days after he won the Daytona 500 for a second time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. rattled off a list of comments he'd heard from critics in the past.
He was overrated. He didn't have the necessary killer instinct. He lacked the drive to win a championship. He didn't want it badly enough.
Earnhardt said being called overrated never bothered him. But having his determination and hunger questioned did.
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"If you look at how happy I was Sunday after winning that race, you'll know how bad I want to win," he said during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "You'll know how much winning means to me and you'll know from now on that there's no questioning my killer instinct or drive."
As the celebration continued during national media tour — he visited New York on Monday and made stops at ESPN and in Austin, Texas on Tuesday — Earnhardt thanked team owner Rick Hendrick for sticking with him in the dismal 2009 and 2010 seasons, when he finished outside the top 20 in points.
He's since rebounded with three consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup berths and is virtually guaranteed a fourth after winning Sunday.
"I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am…that they believed in me," he said. "(They) were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work, regardless of what the critics were saying, when everybody was saying I was finished, (questioning) whether I was going to do anything (good) ever again."
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Earnhardt said growing up around the sport made him love it, and he'd do or sacrifice anything for the best interests of NASCAR.
He also called Sunday's race "electric" and said it was one of the most exciting Daytona 500s he'd been part of. But Earnhardt was at a loss when it came to explaining why drivers collectively raised their intensity level.
"I wish I knew, because that's what NASCAR wants to bottle and sell," he said. "… Races usually have a lull in the middle, don't get going til the end when it's time to put money on the line.
"We sustained it from the time we started all the way to the end. I couldn't believe it."
Earnhardt guessed his Junior Nation fan base was reacting similarly to how he'd feel if his beloved Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl again. The 39-year-old hasn't had time to watch a replay of the race — or even eat very much during the last few days — but said he'll probably watch the 500 three times in a row when he gets a chance.
"I hope they celebrate that victory," he said. "I hope they're enjoying themselves this week. I hope they enjoy the coverage. I hope they think I'm doing a good job representing Junior Nation."
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