Dale Jr. Steps It Up To Return To His Winning Ways

I’m running unfashionably late this year; six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races have been run prior to my first column of the season on the subject of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Judging from what we’ve seen so far, it won’t be my last.

After failing to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field in 2009 and 2010, and starting the 2011 season with a disappointing 24th-place showing in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt finished no lower than 12th in any race leading into Texas Motor Speedway April 7-9. At Martinsville the week before, he was a real contender for the victory, ultimately finishing second to Kevin Harvick and moving up to seventh place in the driver standings.

Earnhardt knew he should be happy with that runner-up effort. “I should probably have a good attitude about what happened today and probably go into the next race and use it as momentum and confidence, like any other good driver would do, instead of worrying about, you know, how close we came. I should be thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity I had today and for the opportunity I got to work with the team I'm with and to even be here competing, and take this momentum and take what looks like a better start to the season than I've had in a while to the next racetrack and just keep trying to plug away,” he said after the race.

But there is a world of difference between “should be” and “is.”

There’s an old proverb that postulates, “He who climbs a ladder must have brains in his feet.” While this may seem silly at first, when you think about it, it makes sense. Regardless of the situation – school, job, relationships, etc. -- you have to start at the beginning, gain experience and knowledge, and work your way up the rungs of success until you reach your goal. We don’t all climb the ladder at the same speed, but we all start at the same place – the bottom. The foot.

Some might contend that Junior had a leg up on NASCAR’s ladder of success, thanks to his impeccable racing pedigree and a family business in a position to offer him a seat in a race car rather than a seat in a cubicle. This allowed him to jump up to the second, third, and maybe even the fourth level before beginning his climb, but thanks to things like family issues and team and crew chief changes, his journey has sometimes seemed to be a case of one rung forward and two rungs back.

Until now, that is. NASCAR has never embraced that whole “slow and steady wins the race” concept – and never will – but one piece at a time, we are watching Junior’s puzzle pieces doggedly coming together to create what legions of fans hope will ultimately be a very big picture.

In the ‘real world,’ there are a few rules it is wise to follow when dealing with ladders, and the NASCAR world is no different.

Rule 1: Have two people – one to go up and down the ladder and the other to supervise. NASCAR has sort of expanded this to include a spotter, a crew chief and an entire gang in the pits, but hey, you can never be too careful.

Rule 2: Always take your time when using a ladder. If you are in a rush, you are more prone to accidents. This one is pretty self-explanatory; safety good, accidents bad.

Rule 3: Make sure the ladder is locked into place. When going up, place your foot firmly on each rung, and when you reach the top, hold on tight. At this point, it might be tempting to look down at Jimmie Johnson, since he will uncharacteristically be somewhere behind you, and suggest that he kiss your … foot. Don’t do it. Rocking that particular ladder is always a bad idea.

I can’t be the only person who grinned when, while watching the UConn Huskies cut down the nets after winning the 2011 national title, the CBS broadcast team gave a shout-out to, “Werner, the official ladder of the NCAA basketball championships.” Well, Earnhardt’s ladder has a sponsor, too. It’s called NASCAR Nation, and it’s holding on to that stairway for dear life, keeping it as steady as a rock as its driver tries to make it to the top.

Apparently, Junior has grown weary of babysitting those terrible triplets, Shoulda, Woulda and Coulda. Although it is still very early to be making late-game predictions, it seems safe at this point to say he seems capable of continuing his climb, and is both determined and realistic.

“We had an opportunity to win the race. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the job done,” he said after the Martinsville contest. “We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we still got a little ways to go.”

An Earnhardt who isn’t satisfied with second place? Imagine that. It’s a very welcome – or even better, a very welcome back – sight, for millions of sore eyes.

Step by step and rung by rung, things are definitely looking up.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

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