With one hand on the wheel of his SUV and the other hanging out the window, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in a state of bliss. It's a bright midsummer day, and he's rolling down a bumpy dirt road through thick woods on his 290-acre property in North Carolina, the place he goes to disappear. There are stories in these pines. Earnhardt has collected more than 60 wrecked race cars and placed them among the trees. Over here is the mangled the Dallara Honda that IndyCar driver Will Power crashed at Las Vegas last October in the same accident that took the life of Dan Wheldon. Over there, bathed in shafts of sunlight filtering through the leaves, is the smashed-up Chevrolet that Brad Keselowski walked away from after a fiery wreck at California Speedway in 2007. This graveyard of crumpled metal is where Earnhardt comes to dream.
"Over time weeds will grow over these cars, and they'll really become part of the woods," Earnhardt says. "I like it here because I can think without any distractions. Really think about where I'm at in my life, where I want to go, what I want to do. Who knows? Maybe in 100 years when I'm gone, someone will find these cars and write a story."
What, though, will they say about Earnhardt in 100 years? That he was the most popular driver of his generation? (The guy has won the fans' vote for that title for nine straight years.) That he's the most overrated driver in the history of NASCAR? (Last year he earned $28,164,690 in salary, winnings and endorsements, tops among NASCAR drivers despite not winning a race.) Or that finally, in the fall of 2012 at age 37, he won his first Sprint Cup championship? (It could happen.)
The biggest story in American motor sports this year has been the renewed relevance of Dale Earnhardt Jr. In June, with a victory at Michigan, he broke a four-year winless streak that had become a source of ridicule. In July, he took the points lead for the first time since 2004. And along the way he set a modern NASCAR record by completing the first 5,648 laps of the season, testament not only to the durability of his Hendrick Motorsports equipment but also to a newfound ability to avoid trouble on the track and close out races.
Heading into the Chase, which starts on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt has 17 top 10 finishes (tying him for most in the series with Jimmie Johnson), which explains how he wound up second in the final regular-season standings behind Greg Biffle. (After the points adjustment, he will start the Chase in seventh.) Clearly, this is Earnhardt's best chance at a championship in his 13-year Cup career.
"He's a threat to win it all," says Johnson, a teammate and a guy who knows something about the subject, having won it all himself five times. "From what I've seen with [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and Junior and how consistent they've been and [how many] laps they've led, they are real close to getting on a hot streak of victories."
So what is different? How has the son of the late Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time NASCAR champion, remade himself into a title contender after finishing out of the top 20 in two of the last three years? To begin to find that answer, flip the calendar back to March 6, 2011, when, alone at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he walked into his motor coach and asked himself aloud, "What the f--- is my problem?"
It was a fair question. As far back as 2002, even as he was being celebrated and promoted as the new face of the sport, Earnhardt had a reputation as a driver who lacked focus and was still borrowing against the equity of the brand his father had built. In the garage they talked about a boy who had inherited his father's gift of making a race car behave as if it were attached to his body, yet who wasn't really serious about the sport.
That narrative has followed Earnhardt throughout his decadelong career, haunting him, making him question whether his daddy—as he still refers to Dale Sr.—would be proud of him. And so that profane self-confrontation in Vegas was freighted with meaning and, truth be told, real fear. Earnhardt was coming off a season in which he had finished 21st in the standings, prompting his team owner, Rick Hendrick, to replace Earnhardt's crew chief, Lance McGrew, with Letarte, who had been Jeff Gordon's pit boss since 2005. Letarte was Earnhardt's third crew chief since he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, and Hendrick hoped that the upbeat Letarte would be the perfect person to lift Earnhardt out of his funk. But then in the 2011 season opener at Daytona, Earnhardt got caught up in a wreck after a late restart and came in 24th on the track where he had enjoyed success even in his darkest days. Now at Vegas, the third race of the season, he was near the bottom of the speed chart in practice and had just qualified 33rd. What the f--- is my problem?
"I knew right then that if I didn't get going with Steve and change a bunch of s--- in my life, I was going to be a has-been," Earnhardt says. "I mean, how many crew-chief changes will Mr. Hendrick make before he finally says, 'This ain't working.' I knew I needed to make more of an effort, and it's like a light went on. It used to be that after practice I couldn't wait just to get back to my bus to eat a taco or something and not give a s--- about talking to my team or crew chief. I didn't know what it meant to be accountable. If they don't fix the car, I was like, F--- it. I thought I was working hard, but I wasn't. I was going to be as lazy as they'd let me.
"But in Las Vegas, I just knew I needed to put more effort into this thing. The team can't guess what I want in the car. So I went to the team hauler and sat with Steve for four hours at Las Vegas, just talking about the car, about the setup, about life. I'd never, never done that before with a crew chief. That's when it all started to change."
Using Earnhardt's input at Las Vegas, the team spent much of that night and next morning altering the setup on the number 88 Chevy, fine-tuning its balance. Earnhardt didn't win, but for the first time with Letarte as his crew chief, he showed consistent speed, finishing eighth. More important, he had displayed something of the fabled Earnhardt magic in traffic, creating passing lanes that no else seemed to see. He would wind up seventh in the final standings last year, and slowly—lap by lap, race by race—his confidence was being rebuilt. The green flag on the second act of Earnhardt's career had waved.
Even before his wreck, that 2011 Daytona 500 had battered Earnhardt. It was the 10-year anniversary of his father's death at that same track, and everywhere he went in the days leading up to that race, the questions hit him: Can you really believe it's been 10 years, Dale? Does the anniversary give you closure, Dale? How would your life be different if your daddy were alive, Dale?
"I don't like to talk about it, to be honest," Earnhardt says. "I still think about him every day, but it's been a long time."
Yet after the 500, people stopped asking Earnhardt about Dale Sr. It was as if, collectively, fans and reporters finally moved on, which in turn helped him start to do the same. "Dale is now at peace with what happened with his daddy," says Brenda Jackson, Dale's mother. "He had such heartache, and it was easy for him to hide that away. The anniversary allowed him to talk about it one more time and then really get past it. And he has. It's odd to say, but he's just become a different person."
In 2009, Earnhardt built a new house on his gated property. One of the interior designers who worked on Earnhardt's four-bedroom mansion was Amy Reimann. The two started dating, and, according to everyone close to Earnhardt, she's played a vital role in his racing rebirth. She travels with Earnhardt, and now, instead of staying in his motor coach for most of his meals as he used to, the two will venture out to trendy restaurants—often with Letarte and his wife, which has further developed the rapport between driver and crew chief. "Dale has never been comfortable doing things that he doesn't know, but now he's stepping out, and Amy is a big reason why," says Kelley Earnhardt, Dale's older sister. "He's playing golf, playing softball and [he's] just become more adventurous. You can see this at the track as well. He's matured." The 30-year-old Reimann, a workout zealot, has influenced Earnhardt in other ways. For the first time in his life the famously exercise-averse driver is now jogging and lifting weights. He's off white bread, cutting back on the junk food and drinking only diet sodas (instead of a six-pack of Mountain Dew a day), and perhaps most telling for the former face of Budweiser, avoiding alcohol in the four days before every race. He has dropped 10 pounds in the last year—the 6-foot Earnhardt now weighs 180—and his increased conditioning and stamina has helped him late in races this season. One of Earnhardt's biggest flaws in years past was that his concentration would wane as the laps wound down because he became physically fatigued. This season he's consistently rolling past other drivers in the closing miles of a race, as if his car is in the same stellar physical shape as its driver.
"It's such a calming factor to have Amy around," says Earnhardt, who now seems far removed from the hell-raising good ol' boy who once missed an interview because he'd stayed up too late in the night trying to get to the bottom of a bottle (or 12). With a long history of relationships that failed, he's not taking any chances with Reimann. Earnhardt asked that she not be interviewed for this article as he's trying to shield her from the public spotlight—an understandable goal for a man who recently had a fan leap over the fence of his property to try to meet him; she was unsuccessful. "I can't imagine going to a race without her. I bounce a lot of things off her, and it's comforting to know that she cares about my happiness and well-being upstairs in my head."
So has Reimann made Earnhardt not just a fitter but also a faster race car driver? The King thinks so. "Trust me, when your personal life is crap, your racing life is crap," says Richard Petty, NASCAR's alltime wins leader. "Junior has finally got his personal life figured out, and, damn, that boy is now running like he can win a championship. It isn't a coincidence."
It's July 28, a boiling Midwestern morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Earnhardt was pacing around his Chevy before the first practice session for the Brickyard 400, examining every inch of his car as if he were the doctor and the vehicle his patient. Minutes later, after conferring with Letarte, he jumped into the cockpit and rumbled onto the 2.5-mile track. The immediate result was encouraging: After turning a few laps he was sixth on the speed chart. "We're loose off," Earnhardt said over the radio, meaning the back end of the car was slipping up the track as he exited the turns. "Gotta fix that."
But the tweaks that Letarte made to the balance of the car backfired; when Earnhardt returned to the oval he felt as if he were sliding on black ice through the turns, which forced him to lift off the gas. He qualified 20th at a track where it's notoriously difficult to pass. "We're going to be all right," Earnhardt said after he talked with Letarte and diagnosed the problems in the setup. "We've got the speed to get to the front. I know we have a top five car."
In the past Earnhardt never exuded that kind of swagger after a poor qualifying run. His body language—slumped shoulders, downcast eyes—would suggest that he knew he had no shot at winning (and, frankly, he didn't). But this was so different, so Jimmie Johnson--like, and on the eve of the race he was so sure of the changes he and Letarte made to the setup of the 88 car that they persuaded their teammates, Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus, to incorporate several elements of Earnhardt's setup into Johnson's number 48 Chevy.
The next afternoon, minutes before the start of the race, Earnhardt gave me a knowing, I-got-this kind of nod. He'd never done that before! Then he slid behind the wheel with nine photographers snapping away at him. It didn't take long for Earnhardt to fly through the field: After 25 laps he had passed more cars than any other driver and was up to ninth. "You're doing good," Letarte said over the radio. "Now let's see what we got."
On a mid-race restart—always the best opportunity to pass—Earnhardt aggressively dived into the first corner on the inside line, passing five cars in an eyeblink and moving up to fifth. He was in fourth when, on the final restart of the race, Denny Hamlin tried to cut Earnhardt off as the two hurtled into the first turn. But Earnhardt didn't lift, daring Hamlin to bang into him. Hamlin, in a split-second decision, backed off, ceding the position, something he wouldn't have done when Earnhardt was struggling. In the game of chicken that is NASCAR racing, you don't get respect if you're not running well. Earnhardt would finish fourth while Johnson—with a big assist from Earnhardt and Letarte—would take the checkered flag after leading 247.5 of the 400 miles.
"The fact that Denny showed me that respect at Indy in that final restart shows that I've earned the respect back of other drivers that I had lost," Earnhardt says later, lounging in his living room at home in North Carolina. "I remember at Phoenix, I caused a wreck when I spun, and Tony [Stewart] called me a 'no-driving son of a bitch.' At that moment I felt like I was driving my ass off just to stay out of the way. You can't be aggressive when you're on the defensive all the time. And when a guy struggles in this series for a long time, the pack is quick to dispatch of you. That's what happened to me. I got raced cheap. But when you run up front, you get respect and guys race you differently. That's what happening with me now."
It's a sticky summer afternoon in Concord, N.C., and Earnhardt is at his second home: the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters. The 550 employees at Hendrick have gathered for a team lunch in a large auditorium, and Earnhardt mingles with mechanics and pit crew men as if they are all his close friends, which they have become since that epiphany in Las Vegas in 2011. Earnhardt, a natural-born introvert who as a kid loved nothing more than to play by himself in the corner of a room with his matchbox cars, often used to feel awkward in social situations at Hendrick, but now he is just one of the boys. For him personally, this may be his greatest achievement of 2012.
"Dale had lost confidence, and that means everything to a driver," Hendrick says. "A lot of factors have gone into building that confidence back up—Steve, Dale's personal life and just maturity. He's now got what it takes to win a championship."
Can he do it this season? He'll likely need to win at least two of the final 10 races—the last five Chase champions have averaged 3.4 victories in the playoffs—and avoid any finishes of 20th or worse. He should be especially formidable on Oct. 7 at Talladega Superspeedway (where he has five career wins) and on Oct. 28th at Martinsville Speedway (where he came in third this spring). "I feel like we have the ability to run strong on every single track in the Chase, and that's what it's going to take to get the job done," Earnhardt says as he drives through the woods on his property. "As long as I don't have a car that could end up in this graveyard, I like my chances."
"I KNEW IF I DIDN'T CHANGE A BUNCH OF S--- IN MY LIFE, I WAS GOING TO BE A HAS-BEEN," SAYS EARNHARDT.
"WHEN YOU RUN UP FRONT, GUYS RACE YOU DIFFERENTLY," SAYS EARNHARDT. "THAT'S WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH ME NOW."
One of these four will hoist the Cup when the Chase ends on Nov. 18
1 JIMMIE JOHNSON
Number 48 Chevy Wins in 2012: 3 Regular-season finish: 4
The five-time champion has more career Chase victories (20) than any other driver, and he doesn't have a weak track in front of him. Johnson has been fast this season, even by his standards. He has led more laps (1,033) than any other driver.
2 DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Number 88 Chevy Wins in 2012: 1 Regular-season finish: 2
Though he has only one win this season, Earnhardt has been the most consistent driver in the series. He's tied with his teammate Johnson for most top 10 finishes (17), and his average finish of 9.9 trails only Greg Biffle (9.7).
3 DENNY HAMLIN
Number 11 Toyota Wins in 2012: 4 Regular-season finish: 8
The 31-year-old driver leads the series in victories and is peaking at the perfect time, winning two of the last three races. He narrowly lost the title to Johnson in 2011, and again has the speed to run wheel-to-wheel with the number 48 car.
4 BRAD KESELOWSKI
Number 2 Dodge Wins in 2012: 3 Regular-season finish: 5
Driving for owner Roger Penske, who has never won a Sprint title, Keselowski is the most aggressive of the 12 drivers in the Chase. If he can avoid accidents, Keselowski is capable of multiple wins; he could be the surprise of the playoffs.
Photograph by NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK
EYE-OPENER A year ago, Earnhardt saw a career—his own—on the brink; he recommitted himself to his job, spending more time in the garage and in the gym.
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES
THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION Even as he underachieved, Junior remained a fan fave, but he feared losing track respect.
ANDREW WEBER/US PRESSWIRE (CAR)
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES
KEVIN LILES/US PRESSWIRE
MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES
JEFF ZELEVANSKY/GETTY IMAGES
HAIL TO THE CHIEF Unlike what he did with past pit bosses, Earnhardt gave his full ear to the upbeat Letarte.
JARED C. TILTON/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
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