In front of the cameras or addressing a throng of reporters, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't smile as much these days.
He speaks in a quiet, flat tone, often sounding tired. Even when the subject turns away from racing to something lighter – like his favorite hobbies – his demeanor is sometimes unchanged. Earnhardt Jr. doesn't look like he's having fun despite talking about having fun.
This is nothing new, however. It's been this way for the past couple seasons.
Consequently, some fans who watch his interviews and some reporters who ask him questions have concluded at various points that Earnhardt Jr. must feel beaten down, tired of trying to carry the sport on his shoulders and wishing he was somewhere else instead of the racetrack.
So is it true, Dale?
"To be honest, I'm happy inside," he said last week. "I promise."
But Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged the perception he's not as happy, and said he's noticed it while watching clips of a younger version of himself. He just doesn't know why.
"I'll see these videos of me from five years ago, and (I was) definitely a more jubilant, cheerier guy," he said. "I don't know if that's because I get older – (I've) been doing this so long – just the grind. The failures of the last several years definitely have a lot to do with it."
Away from the track, Earnhardt Jr. shows flashes of the grinning, fun-loving driver fans embraced in his days at Dale Earnhardt Inc. – back when he was winning. Of course, it might be easier to let loose publicly if he wasn't mired in a years-long slump.
"I think I've become more reserved, maybe due to how I've seen me be judged or analyzed," he said. "I've sort of changed my outward approach a little bit toward everybody. But I'm telling you, if I can get back to the racetrack and I can win a race and run well, it'll get a whole lot easier to be a little more (outgoing) and not be such an introvert."
So what makes Earnhardt Jr. happy these days, away from the track? Online racing, for one. Fantasy football. Playing basketball with friends on the half-court he had installed in his house. Deer hunting with Martin Truex Jr.
And perhaps most of all, Earnhardt Jr. values time spent with his family. During the offseason, the driver moved his mother into a new house on his expansive property and attended his sister Kelley's wedding.
A reporter asked Earnhardt Jr. if he's next in line for marriage (he does have a girlfriend, after all).
Not yet, the driver said.
"I'm glad the guy is the one who gets to ask, so I can plan it out and do the asking," he said. "But I don't know how it works. I don't know what happens to you, because I've never had it happen to me. So I can only guess that you'll know when you're ready to do it, and I'm not there yet."
Through all the adversity at the track, Earnhardt Jr. said there isn't anywhere else he'd rather spend his time. He's gotten stir crazy at the end of the offseason, unable to enjoy the last weeks of free time because the anticipation of the new season "is killing me."
"I get to feeling like I'm not doing anything and (when) I'm not productive, and I feel pointless and useless," he said. "It's fun when you go to the racetrack...especially for me needing to improve. The anxiousness and anticipation is tenfold to get to the track and see if this is going to work."
Racing, he said, "is the only thing I really think about the most."
To hear Earnhardt Jr. tell it, his passion for NASCAR hasn't dissipated. He still cares deeply, though he may be more reluctant to show it.
"I may not smile as much, and I may (be) a little monotone, but I have the same hopes and dreams that I've always had," he said. "I have the same anticipation and anxiety about the season, the race, the moment. All those things are still on fire inside me."