FORT WAYNE — There’s a race car graveyard on his spread, down around Lake Norman in west-central North Carolina. And what would Sigmund Freud do with that, if he could slow down Dale Earnhardt Jr. long enough to put him on the couch?
God only knows what he’d make of it if Junior took him into the woods beyond his house and its baylike swimming pool, beyond the movie-set Western town, beyond all the indulgent trappings of his rock-star NASCAR life. Back to where some 60 vehicles returned quietly to the earth, monuments to heartache and calamity.
In aerial photographs, it’s a wooded glade where one of Jimmie Johnson’s battered old rides rests. There’s reportedly an Indy car Will Power busted up one day. There are a handful of Brad Keselowski’s wrecks, a car Dennis Setzer turned into macramé, even the car Juan Pablo Montoya famously crashed into the track drier at Daytona.
Heartache and calamity. All of it rusting away, fading the way old newspaper clippings fade and yellow and curl at the edges.
And, yes, there is something Freudian about that, or at least ironic, as Junior comes to Indianapolis this week less than three months from his 40th birthday. The Brickyard 400, after all, has never been his friend; in 14 starts, he’s finished in the top 10 only five times and has eight finishes of 15th or worse. In his last four starts, he’s finished 17th, 22nd, 20th and, last year, 15th.
Heartache and calamity. And yet … like those rotting cars, all of that has rarely seemed more faded.
Earnhardt comes to Indianapolis, after all, second in the points, 12 back of teammate Jeff Gordon, with the best professional situation of a career that for a long time seemed lost in the wilderness. After once going 143 starts without a win, he’s won two races in a season for the first time since 2004. And he has a crew chief, Steve Letarte, whom he knows and trusts like a brother, and who returns the sentiment in kind.
“I think he’s a tremendous talent behind the wheel with a tremendous amount of desire to run well, and then you have to throw the world’s expectations on him that no one in this room nor myself could believe we understand,” Letarte said of him last month, after Earnhardt won at Pocono.
“I don’t try to understand it,” he went on. “Maybe that’s why him and I are such good friends, because I might be the only one in the world that doesn’t wonder what it’s like to be Dale Jr. He’s a normal guy, he’s a great guy, he’s a great talent. I don’t pretend I have any idea what it’s like to be him. But he handles it with grace, and much like winning, he handles it with even more grace when it’s not going well. And I think that says a lot about him.”
What it says, frankly, is he’s grown as comfortable as a man can when he carries the expectations that come with lugging around That Name. And he’s seen enough of “not going well” to appreciate how precarious a thing the success he’s having now can be.
“It’s elusive, man,” Earnhardt said last month. “For any team, it’s hard to get that competitive to where you can win races … . Our group has been working together for quite some years now, and each year we saw a progression in performance, and we’ve seen ourselves get better each year.
“We’re still not the best team. We can always improve, and there’s areas where we can improve.”
One of those areas, however, does not seem to be on the relationship side. And that, too, has been elusive for a natural introvert such as Earnhardt – not to mention unexpected, since Letarte and his team were formerly Gordon’s team.
“The way (his team) wrapped their arm around me, put me under their wing and made me feel comfortable and made me feel confident and made me feel worthy of the opportunity to work with them was great,” Earnhardt says. “They’ve been just genuine, genuine people.”
Says Letarte: “We’re having a blast. We’re having fun. We go to the racetrack expecting good results because of the momentum and the hard work and the race cars we’ve brought.”
Some of that is simply due to how hard he and Earnhardt have worked at developing their relationship. And some of it, Letarte readily admits, is a byproduct of sharing the same building with six-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I think they have as much to do with us breaking through with a multiwin season as anybody,” he says.
As for Earnhardt, all he knows is that the bad days, the lost-in-the-wilderness days, are as much an apparition right now as all those ghostly wrecks down on the Whisky. They could stir at any time (“Expectations can become fragile very quick, and you have to manage them when they don’t come your way,” warns Letarte),
But for now … .
“Winning races is great, but it’s nothing unless you enjoy who you’re doing it with,” Earnhardt said last month after Pocono. “When you can do something great and it’s with people you enjoy being around, man, it really adds to it.”
And adds to it. And adds to it.