As it turns out, those Nationwide Insurance commercials featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be closer to reality than expected.
And this season, as Earnhardt Jr. continues to chase his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, he’s trying to take on the commercial persona of “Water Cooler Dale” instead of “Boss Man.”
Despite four runner-up finishes and currently holding a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Earnhardt Jr. isn’t thrilled with his season at the halfway point. And instead of being the intimidating Boss Man — the guy who “scouts the talent, closes the deals and does it all with a firm handshake” — Earnhardt Jr. is trying to take a more relaxed approach.
“I hate to get frustrated. It doesn’t help (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and you don’t want to show that kind of emotion in front of your guys,” Earnhardt Jr. said at Kentucky Speedway on Friday. “It doesn’t make their job more fun. You don’t want to be somebody that’s hard to be around. I’m trying to be positive.”
Earnhardt Jr. rides into today’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway 13th in the drivers’ points standings. More important, he’s 14th in the Chase championship, bumped down a spot because of Tony Stewart’s win that carries more weight than points. The top 16 qualify for the Chase.
Earnhardt and Ives have struggled this season to find the necessary speed to put the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet in victory lane. With nine races remaining before the Chase field is set, there’s still time to find it.
“We obviously aren’t up in the points like we’re used to,” said Earnhardt Jr., whose average finishing position is 15.7. “We haven’t been getting the results that we expect. We’ll keep working. Keep going to the race track and showing up.
“Every week I just need more time to work on my car. We’ve had a lot of weather, a lot of unique situations. It’s been a little frustrating every now and then. But I’m still enjoying it. I’m still having fun. I still believe in the group we got. I know we can do it because we’ve done it before.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s effort to remain positive received a boost Thursday when he toured Nationwide Children’s Hospital near Columbus. His hood carries the NCH logo and names of fans — and even NCH patients — who donated to the hospital through a special fund-raising campaign.
“I was really lucky to go up there and get a behind-the-scenes look,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I went up there last year, too. It’s a lot of fun. The patients are awesome to talk to and get to know. … It’s a great treat for me to go there. I look forward to going back.”
Back at Kentucky Speedway, Friday’s rain canceled qualifying for the Quaker State 400 so the field was set by owner points. Earnhardt Jr. starts 13th at the newly repaved and remodeled 1.5-mile track. The majority of the bone-jarring bumps are gone. The challenge now comes from Turns 1-2, where the width of the track went from 74 feet to 56 feet. The banking was also increased from 14 degrees to 17 degrees. The banking in Turns 3-4 remained at 14 degrees.
“It’s a one-groove track so passing is gong to be really difficult. … Going into Turn 1-2 side by side, somebody is going to have to make a decision to give up their spot,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t think you’re going to see too many guys challenging on the outside there.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s best finishes at Kentucky Speedway were fourth in 2012 and fifth in 2014. There have also been finishes of 30th, 12th and last season’s effort of 21st.
“There’s other races,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his approach to the season. “If this race doesn’t work out there’s a race next week.”
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