Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports
Daytona Beach, FL-- On Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s long road back to NASCAR relevance at least the on-track kind there have been two main obstacles.
His car and himself.
"If your confidence isn't there, you can be with the greatest team ever, but it's going to affect you, it's going to have a negative effect," Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports as he relaxed in his motorhome with his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, and their dog, an excitable Pomeranian named Junebug. "So that's important that my confidence gets better as well as the team progresses. As we start to progress, it's important that I do the same thing."
In advance of Sunday's Daytona 500 and on the heels of a remarkably consistent season (he had 20 top-10 finishes, matching the total of the previous two years), Earnhardt says he's back to playing offense on the track.
When other drivers recognize that an opponent belongs toward the front of the field, it makes it slightly easier to complete passes or, as Earnhardt said, "argue for positions." But if a driver sees an outsider - like a low-budget team - the mentality is "they need to get shipped to the back as soon as possible," he said.
In that sense, confidence can translate into results.
"When you run good, they treat you differently," Earnhardt said. "As a driver, you know who belongs up front. When you see a guy struggling for a long period of time, you're like, 'Man, get to the back where you belong.' ... It's sort of an elitist kind of thing. It's really cutthroat."
Being arrogant or cocky as a race car driver, Earnhardt said, "is a good thing" - but it doesn't come as naturally to him as it might to others.
Now that his swagger is returning, will other drivers notice?
"I think we need to continue to be strong this year to sort of earn the respect of your peers," he said. "It doesn't come easy."
There were times during his lean years - especially 2009-10 - when Earnhardt questioned whether he had lost his talent for NASCAR racing.
"It's like, 'Damn. What's it going to take to get back to running like I want to run or like I think I can run or how I've run in the past?'" Earnhardt said. "You wonder, 'How much has the sport changed?' and 'Why is it so difficult?' and 'How did it become more competitive?' and 'Where did you lose your way?'
"When it's over a big chunk of time like that, it takes awhile to build that confidence back up."
Earnhardt, 38, lost his way for a few years and hit his low point during 2009 when his average finish dipped to 23.2. His turnaround has been dramatic since crew chief Steve Letarte arrived at the start of 2011; last season, Earnhardt's average finish improved to 10.9.
But Earnhardt insists his confidence is even greater than a year ago, including in April when he called himself "the best driver" at Hendrick Motorsports.
When Earnhardt challenged for a win at Pocono last June and then won at Michigan the following week, it gave him a huge boost that carried through the summer, when he held the points lead.
But while he says he's feeling confident and his team appears to be more consistent, Earnhardt is unsure if other drivers view him as the kind of competitor who belongs up front.
To hear other drivers tell it, though, the respect for Earnhardt has been there all along.
"You don't just wake up one day and go, 'Man, I don't know how to drive anymore,'" Joey Logano said. "But obviously having a few tough seasons brings up a lot of different things, and I know that's hard to deal with. Especially being such a high-profile driver, it must be really hard to deal with for him."
Jeff Gordon, one of Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammates, said there was a "long list" of reasons why the driver's career didn't continue to progress after he entered NASCAR with buzz, hype - and results.
Gordon said Earnhardt's willingness to drive for Hendrick - NASCAR's version of the New York Yankees - showed he wanted to embrace the pressure that came with having good equipment.
"A quality driver that feels like they can go win championships should have that kind of mindset, and he did," Gordon said. "That certainly earned a bunch of points in my mind. Now I think that decision is starting to pay off."
Kyle Busch, who famously took a shot at Earnhardt when he was struggling ("It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief," he said in 2009), praised Earnhardt last week and said his struggles were a reflection of more than just the driver.
When NASCAR switched to the "Car of Tomorrow" model in 2007, Earnhardt went from a 17-time winner in his first seven years to winning just two races in the COT era. Busch said NASCAR's new Gen 6 cars could change that.
" He was fast in the old car. With the new car, it seemed like things kind of changed for him," Busch said. "Maybe with the Gen 6, he'll get a little more back of that old, tight feel he's looking for."
But if Earnhardt is to complete his journey back to his former self, he'll need more than just confidence and a good car. The results need to come, too.
"We need to win more than one race a year," he said. "I think we need to win three. Hell, six would be awesome. We need to win a handful of races for me personally to be satisfied.
"We've talked and talked and talked about being in the title hunt at Homestead. To make that reality happen, anything less than that would be disappointing."