Fans still whisper about the crash that could have ended Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career – or worse – during a sports car event at Sonoma in 2004.
Earnhardt Jr. crashed a Corvette, which exploded in flames and left him burned. Fortunately, he escaped the worst of the fire before he was injured more seriously, but fans have wondered over the years whether the wreck left an impact on his psyche.
Could that somehow explain Earnhardt Jr.'s slump in recent years?
In a word, no.
"I promise – and I've been asked that a lot – it really doesn't have an impact on my career as far as stock cars go," said Earnhardt Jr., who still has scars on his neck and leg from the crash. "I feel completely overly safe in that (Sprint Cup) car."
Earnhardt Jr. said the fire was "really scary" and that "I did not realize how hot fire was."
"You never know," he said. "It's probably not healthy to daydream about situations like that, but I never realized it would be as hot and crazy as it was."
The memories of the wreck would bother him, he said, if he drove sports cars for a living. But he doesn't. And in Cup cars, he said, "I don't never, ever worry about it."
"I don't think it had a negative effect on my ability to run how I run here," he said. "I've been running that way since I got here."
Speaking of how he runs at Sonoma (traditionally not very well), Earnhardt Jr. said he hasn't always had the best attitude about road courses because "I grew up driving short tracks and raced ovals all my life, not to make it to Formula One."
On Friday, the 88 car wasn't very good to start the day and then broke the rear gear during a qualifying practice run, Earnhardt Jr. said.
The team will still work to figure out a setup for the race, but the fallback is the setup that had Earnhardt Jr. running in the top 10 late in the race last year before he was wrecked out.
"We can still plug that old setup in right before the race starts," he said. "It's really not about having a fast car anyways. Everything's really in the drivers' hands here."
At any rate, Earnhardt Jr. told reporters that he wanted to "improve from mediocre to sub-par this weekend."
But as one reporter pointed out, "That's worse."
"Oh, is it?" Earnhardt Jr. said. "What's better than mediocre, without really giving myself too much credit?"
"Average," the reporters said.
"I'm already average!" he said. "I'm average now."
"Decent," another reporter said.
"Decent?" Earnhardt Jr. said. "I've got ‘decent' for seventh, so what's like 10th?"
"Above average," another reporter said. "Right now you're 'meeting expectations.'"
"Really?!" Earnhardt Jr. said, laughing. "Can I get that in the news? Like, could you say that in your articles?"
The reason why he's only "average" at Sonoma, Earnhardt Jr. said, is because he gets lured into racing too hard at the wrong time of the race.
"My biggest problem is I get to racing everybody around me and the guy in front of me, and I want to catch him and I drive into the next corner like it's a short track, trying to roll in on him and get in the throttle sooner," he said. "And then we've got another corner up and I'm totally off line for it and I'm slow. And everything I gained, he gets back.
"We sit there and do that shit all day long, all of us back in 20th or 15th or whatever."
Editor's note: Below is a video of the ALMS race in which Earnhardt Jr. was injured in 2004.