Friday, February 28, 2014

That's Where His Demons Lie: Five Questions for Phoenix

My eyes fought to stay open as I watched the victory lane celebration; I had been up since 7 that morning, and the thought of school was looming. Fingers tapped away to put together the recap for my website. Words were blurring together as I set my laptop aside, hands now finding the remote to jack up the volume.

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his post-race interviews, something stood out to me. The swagger and excitement oozed from him, and it was difficult not to smile. When drivers win over and over, their feelings don’t shine through every single time, like the task becomes monotonous.

The 2014 Daytona 500 winner’s enthusiasm was intoxicating. That’s what memorable moments are made of, and it was worth staying up while exhausted.

Fast forwarding a few days later, Earnhardt Jr. was everywhere; getting bit by the Twitter bug only amplified the impact. He was on any broadcast you could list. NASCAR was spreading wider than I thought it could, and it was beautiful.

I was particularly excited to listen to him speak on Marty & McGee, an ESPN podcast hosted by writers Marty Smith and Ryan McGee. Because the two are known for getting drivers to relax and open up, I was curious how the interview would go.

Both writers talked at length about what the win meant —for NASCAR and the driver of the No. 88. The conclusion was clear: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been through a lot, and this was bigger than anyone could fathom. He use to be in a difficult place between 2008 and 2009, one that seemed unrecoverable.

That hit me hard.

We paint all athletes as untouchable. Racecar drivers reach superhero status. They are the people we aim to mimic. What we fail to realize is that they have demons, just like us.

In Turn 4 of Daytona International Speedway and in his head. That’s where his demons lie. He lost his father, a key player in his life, career and character. The burden that comes with it is unimaginable. To carry it with you every time you head to a racetrack? Nothing could burn more.

All of us have gone through a dark time. Many don’t see it until their life has pulled a 180. Then one day, you look in the mirror and realize the fighter they’ve become along the way. Looking back, the change in Dale Earnhardt Jr. was significant. He smiled more. He began to make eye contact during engagements. The closeted caterpillar reinvented himself into a social butterfly again. From the lowest of lows, he rose.

So can you.

If you’re currently resting at rock bottom and believe the only solution is to burrow deeper, I want you to look at the driver that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is and the personality he has developed. He never gave up. I bet there were times he wanted to, but those feelings never won. The demons quit whispering in your ear once you stop listening.

I’m glad I stayed up late and finished watching this year’s Daytona 500. Learning a new lesson about life is worth sleep deprivation and a head-splitting migraine. And it always will be.

As the excitement dies down, teams are gearing up to head west. Phoenix International Raceway is a one-mile track that can’t rein in a spitfire attitude. Who knows what will happen? Nobody, but I’m going to try my best to figure it out before it all goes down.

How will Sprint Cup drivers adjust to the new qualifying format? Heading to Phoenix means that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will qualify using the new “knockout” format. They’re almost like heat races, which should excite fans. However, what pleases the fans usually trips up the guys on the track. Some drivers have said they’re thrilled for the change, and it will be interesting to see how it goes. Wrecks? Fights? Even faster speeds? Oh my.

When does the season begin? Not to diss the Daytona 500, but the truth season begins this weekend. Those who floundered need to rebound in points before they sink lower. Those at the top have to keep the momentum flowing. The wild card races are gone for a while, and the real work starts this weekend.

Does Denny Hamlin continue his hot streak? If you looked up the word determination in the dictionary, there would be a picture of Hamlin right next to it. The story of his broken back was tragic, yet he persevered and won the final race last year. Rolling into Speedweeks turned out even better; he won the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel race, capping it off with an amazing finish Sunday night sans spotter. This man is a stubborn dog who refused to let go of a chew toy. There’s no doubt in my mind he can keep this up.

What is it about NASCAR that brings the rain? Mother Nature is a jerk. A big, fat, heartless jerk. How dare she delay NASCAR’s biggest race by SIX HOURS? How dare she mess with our sport at all? It seems like the rain follows racing wherever it goes; I almost threw a fit once I heard the wet forecast for Phoenix. Thankfully, Sunday is starting to look better, but Saturday may not go well for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Either way, I’m none too pleased with Mother Nature. She and I aren’t on speaking terms.

Is this Earnhardt Jr. here to stay? (I hope so.) As you can tell, I admire the change Earnhardt Jr. has gone through. Sadly, it’s taken a huge win for me to realize that. I truly see this vibrant side staying; he has a strong support system around him, and that allows him to become vulnerable and human. My only fear is that losing Steve Letarte at the end of the season will have a negative effect, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

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