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May 4, 5:27 PM EDT

Column: Earnhardt back in victory lane and happier than ever


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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- There was a nearly five-year period for Dale Earnhardt Jr. when being a famous race car driver wasn't all glitz and glamour.

He was a non-factor on the race track, barely even contended at Daytona and Talladega, the two places he was supposed to be unbeatable, and he is the first to admit his confidence had crumbled.

Rebuilding NASCAR's most popular driver was a lengthy process that took a firm commitment from Rick Hendrick and a ton of patience from Earnhardt's rabid fan base. The turnaround was slow - some laps led here, a win there - until he finally hit his stride last season with a Daytona 500 victory and three other wins.

So it was no surprise Sunday to see Earnhardt back in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he at one time had conquered with the same ease as his father. The late Dale Earnhardt won 10 times at the Alabama restrictor-plate track; his son once reeled off five wins in seven races.

What was a surprise was the pure emotion that poured out of Junior when he climbed from his car following his sixth Talladega victory, his first at the track since 2004, and one that came just four days after what would have been his father's 64th birthday.

Earnhardt choked on his words as he talked about how much he appreciates his life, that he doesn't think he deserves all this happiness. Hours later, the beer and champagne soaking through his firesuit and his emotions finally in check, he was asked what made him so reflective immediately after the win.

His answer showed again what a thoughtful and sincere man Earnhardt has become. Shy as a child, then cast as a party boy when he moved to NASCAR's top series, he's finally figured out exactly who he is. He's a homebody at heart who has found the woman of his dreams, and together they've learned a greater appreciation for every success he earns on the track.

At 40, he's blissfully content and forever grateful for this opportunity he still has driving the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet.

"I think the part I feel I don't think I deserve is the racing side of it - there's just not many second chances," he said. "I feel like if my name wasn't Earnhardt that I wouldn't have had the second chance. I feel like I owe my second chance to my dad, his legacy, because the way I ran ... I feel I didn't deserve to be kept around or hung onto."

A fan of all sports and a bit of a historian, Earnhardt said he has seen plenty of sons follow their father into business and fail. After just four wins in nine seasons, Earnhardt certainly wasn't living up to his father's legacy.

The late Dale Earnhardt was a seven-time Cup champion, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, winner of 76 career races and a driver who sent shivers down the spines of his rivals when they saw him in the rearview mirror.

During all those lean years, the question of if Junior would ever win a Cup championship was replaced by "Will he ever even win a race again?"

Last season proved he's a winner again, maybe even a championship contender. It also became clear that Earnhardt had found a companion in girlfriend Amy Reimann who brought out the best in him.

His genuine love for Reimann poured out of him during his post-race obligations. They'd made the decision last week that she wouldn't attend Talladega and instead would get things done around their North Carolina home.

When he woke up Sunday morning and she wasn't there on race day, he realized what a bad idea it had been for her not to come.

"I was miserable that she wasn't here," he said. "It just proves to me how much she means to me and how important she is to me. She's been a big help in getting me out of my shell."

Earnhardt talked about how he spent so many years holed up in his motorhome at the race track, how he turned down so many invitations to parties or events just to sit on his computer and online race.

"I thought I was having fun, but I was really miserable," he said. "She's made my life a whole lot more enjoyable and showed me how to have fun and showed me there's a lot more to life."

He also credited his sister, Kelley, who runs JR Motorsports for him, and his mother, Brenda, who has been a fixture in his inner circle the last several years.

"Everything is in the right direction, everybody is happy," Earnhardt said. "I guess that's the way it's supposed to be."

That is the way it was supposed to be at Talladega. Earnhardt has figured out how to make it work everywhere.

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