- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 40 in a month, and much of his adult life is still a blur. It’s just one more reminder there isn’t much time for reflection inside a race car.

“I’ve always wondered what happens to a person as they age, physically and mentally, that changes their performance,” Earnhardt said. “Mark Martin, into his 50s, was still as quick as Day 1. Harry Gant, guys like that … there’s something inside, a passion to do the details, the extra work. I’ve often wanted to talk to other drivers about what the experience is like.

“It would be cool,” he added, “to have that kind of conversation someday.”

But Thursday was not that time. Instead, Earnhardt flitted from interview to interview as part of a whirlwind launch for NASCAR’s playoff series, which is loosely modeled on the NCAA’s basketball tourney - including a bracket - and begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Most of the questions, not surprisingly, were some variation of whether this would be the year Earnhardt finally breaks through and claims the Sprint Cup championship that plenty of people once assumed was his birthright.

Junior inherited plenty from the old man: fast reflexes, fearlessness and the biggest tribe in NASCAR. But along with those came outsized expectations and, so far, too little of the staying power Dale Sr. showed while plowing his way to a record-tying seven series titles. Junior had plenty of success early but basically fell off the grid in 2005. His three wins this year, beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500, are only one fewer than he totaled the previous nine combined.

There’s no denying NASCAR is a different place when Earnhardt is relevant. CEO Brian France once compared him to the Los Angeles Lakers, because he’s one of the few guys on the circuit who can move the TV ratings needle by himself. There are more than a few theories circulating about what sparked this latest resurgence - maturity has become a recurring theme - but Earnhardt argues it was simply his win in the opener at Daytona.

That amounted to automatic qualification for the playoffs, easing what had been the season-long pressure - “a heavy weight for me personally,” is how he put it - to be in contention at the end. Now that he’s here, it’s begun ratcheting up again.

“I’ve been reading all year long, ‘This is your year,’” he said, glancing down at his phone. “I can definitely sense the urgency.”

Earnhardt also knows good counsel is easier to come by these days than it was when he first joined Hendrick Motorsports. Teammates Jimmie Johnson, a six-time champion, and Jeff Gordon, who’s won four, had already carved out sizeable pieces of turf. Earnhardt is close in age to his friendly rivals, if not quite in accomplishments, and after his rocky start in the Hendrick garage, he usually names those two as models for any young driver to emulate.

Johnson, 38, acknowledged Thursday that he, too, finds himself in quiet moments wondering how long a driver can stay at the top of his game. Asked what quality he worries most about losing, he didn’t hesitate.

“Bravery,” Johnson said. “Then probably commitment. We’re lucky in the sense that our bodies don’t pile up the same kind of wear and tear that athletes do in other sports. … But somewhere in the back of your mind, you know the window won’t stay open forever.”

Gordon, who’s also won three times this season and is enjoying a late career resurgence of his own, thought seriously about retiring eight years ago because of a bad back. Now 43, he regrets even broaching the topic.

“If somebody had asked me to pick the … age where your body and your experience as a driver peak, I probably would have said 35,” Gordon recalled. “But because we’re dealing with a machine in our sport, being adaptable, being willing to learn plays at least as big a role as any in how long you can be competitive.”

The last thing Earnhardt wants to do is get caught looking too far ahead or behind. Where he is at the moment feels like the sweet spot.

“I’m running great. I feel like I’m as competitive as ever,” he said. “I’m not too concerned about it right now.

“But there will come a day,” he added, “when you’ve got to make some pretty serious decisions about what you want to do.”

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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