Surprising revelation: Dale Jr. admits he coasted earlier in his career — ‘I just rested on my legacy and last name’

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In one of the most candid interviews of his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted that he hasn’t always been as determined and focused on success as he is now.

Prior to Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, ESPN aired Earnhardt’s pre-taped interview with Marty Smith at the now-defunct Metrolina Speedway in northeast Charlotte (North Carolina).

[MORE: Dale Jr. on being 40]

Earnhardt was somber – seemingly on the verge of tears at one point – when he discussed how his 15-season Sprint Cup career has evolved.

“I remember when I was younger, in my 20s, you didn’t think about it,” Earnhardt said about how his career would eventually play out. “You just went and did. Especially the further you get into your career, the closer you get to the end, you start to wonder how it’s going to finish. Then you want to end it on your own terms. I just wondered at times if I was going to have that choice.

“Right now, we’re in a position to strike. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go out there and out-perform everybody. That’s what I expect every week from us.”

Earnhardt acknowledged what some of his critics have contended for a long time: he didn’t always try as hard as he could, that he got wrapped up in his own success and his last name.

[MORE: Earnhardt eliminated from The Chase ]

Essentially, he coasted on that combination.

“When I was younger, it was more about me, me and me and really just self-centered about am I happy, what’s going to make me happy, what do I need and what do I want,” Earnhardt said. “Being plugged into the team and being part of all the communication, I wasn’t very good at it then. I didn’t do everything I could to make a difference.

“I would show up to Saturday morning practice when I drove with Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., I’d show up five minutes late. I’d be walking to the car and cars are pulling out of the garage. I can’t even imagine that now. If that happened today, I wouldn’t even want to work with that guy, I wouldn’t want to be nowhere near that guy. What a jerk, what a lazy dummy, you know.

“I look at myself back then and thought ‘what were you thinking?’ I had a lot of talent and I wasn’t getting it out of the car. I just rested on my legacy and last name.

“I used to carry every result on through the week and into the next race. I didn’t want to go to work, I didn’t want to race several weekends. I just didn’t want to go. I just knew I had to keep going to try and find a way to try and get it turned around.”

Earnhardt, who turned 40 on Oct. 10, admits he’s grown up and lamented at how he used to be.

But at the same time, he’s trying his best to make up for those shortcomings. He also surprised with comments on how important performance is to him.

“I like to be dependable and want my guys to feel like they trust me,” Junior said. “As a guy on the crew, I want to see my driver make a difference.

“My own mood is based off how I perform. Friendships are important to me, but not as important as my performance. My family is important to me, but not as important as my performance. If that’s wrong, it’s wrong. But right now, my performance drives everything in my life, everything.”

And if he falls short of advancing to the Eliminator Round?

“We’re going to be really disappointed obviously we’re not going to be able to continue in the Chase and be part of that group,” he said in a pre-race interview on ESPN. “You want to be one of those select drivers that continues on. This has been a great year. We’ve done really well, we were able to get better than we were last year, win some more races … sort of a great sendoff for Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte) with the Daytona 500 and we swept Pocono.

“We’ve had a lot of great runs and all that seems like such a distant memory because in five weeks, if you’ve struggled like we have, that can just erase so many things from your mind.

“All you really think about is what you did last week, what you did the week before that. We’re focused on the here and now, we know what we need to do today, it’s going to be interesting all day long trying to make that happen. We’re going to work real hard and see what happens.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski