Mar 17, 2014, 12:15 AM EDT
Ever since he won the season-opening Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on a rocket ship of attention.
He didn’t even get a chance to celebrate his win in the Great American Race with family and close friends until this past week, having gone on a whirlwind post-Daytona national media tour, followed by runner-up finishes in subsequent races at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
There’s a thing like a delayed reaction, but to celebrate one of the biggest wins of your career nearly three weeks later after actually doing it, well, that should show just how busy Earnhardt has been.
Sooner or later, Earnhardt was bound to come back to Earth, and did so in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Two days after admitting he wasn’t comfortable with being the face of NASCAR, something that Brian France probably cringed about when he heard it, Earnhardt proved he was human and not invincible, finishing 24th.
After having the spotlight constantly and directly aimed on him since Daytona, it was time someone else enjoyed time in that same spotlight.
Plenty earned it Sunday.
There was race winner Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart‘s season-best fourth-place finish, the inspiring showing by Richard Petty Motorsports teammates Aric Almirola (third) and Marcos Ambrose (fifth), outstanding 10th and 11th place runs by rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.
Admittedly, Earnhardt didn’t have the strongest car at Bristol. While strong early on in the race, his Chevrolet faded, eventually finishing 499 laps, one lap behind the leaders.
While Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne finished seventh and eighth Sunday, there was no shame in Junior finishing 24th. Heck, fellow teammate Jimmie Johnson finished 18th – and he’s a six-time Sprint Cup champion.
Of course, Bristol is one of Johnson’s worst performing tracks, so that’s not such a big surprise in the whole scheme of things.
In a strange way, maybe Bristol was just what Junior needed. The media and fan attention will likely tone down heading into next weekend at Fontana. Reporters won’t make an immediate beeline to interview him there, instead likely looking for guys like Edwards and Stewart.
Sure, Earnhardt lost his lead in the Sprint Cup points standings, dropping from first to second, 10 points behind new series leader Brad Keselowski.
But it’s better to have the kind of finish he had Sunday in the fourth race of the season than to go through a similar outcome in the last few races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Junior Nation may be bummed. Junior himself likely is.
But finishing 24th really isn’t all that bad. It will give Earnhardt a chance to catch his breath, to look back and review everything that has happened to him thus far – including Sunday’s showing – and figure out where to go from here.
If anything, his Bristol showing could wind up being the best thing to happen to him. If nothing else, it’ll bring everyone back to reality who was starting to think that Earnhardt was invincible this season, that if he couldn’t win every race, he’d at least finish second every week that he doesn’t’ finish first.
Remember, from adversity often comes strength.
If you think Junior was strong in the first three races, wait and see how he bounces back from Bristol.
In a season that he enjoyed the best start of his career, what he does from here will be the true measure of whether this truly and finally is going to be his best year ever or not.
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