The NASCAR media asks more of Dale Earnhardt Jr. than any other driver, mostly because the thirst for information about the sport's most popular driver makes him worthy of coverage. I'm often put in the position of defending SB Nation's weekly Earnhardt Jr. stories to fans who gripe that their favorite driver doesn't get as much attention as the driver of the No. 88.
They're right, of course. But as one of my media colleagues put it recently, Earnhardt Jr.'s popularity means he's like covering the home team - we write about him, win or lose.
No other driver moves the needle like Earnhardt Jr. does, so no other driver has reporters show up at the back gate of the hauler after every race regardless of the finish. Even five-time champion Jimmie Johnson can escape the track unmolested after some races.
To his credit, Earnhardt Jr. almost always obliges the post-race interview requests. He'll climb from his car, walk around the vehicle to survey the damage and take a seat on the hauler steps with an ice-cold rag in hand. After collecting himself and catching his breath for a moment, he'll look toward reporters and say in his distinctive accent, "Awwright, what's up?"
Even through the miserable 2010 season, Earnhardt Jr. talked after almost every race and almost every qualifying session. After one race last year, he didn't connect with the reporters who typically show up to interview him because he parked his car in a different location - and then sent word during the week that he felt bad about missing them.
That might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Many of the star drivers, with the exception of perhaps Jeff Gordon, find a way to elude or avoid the waiting reporters after a bad day. Quite frankly, Earnhardt Jr. has enough stature that he could be a total jerk to the media and get away with it; but he doesn't.
So when I walked up to Earnhardt Jr.'s hauler on Saturday night at Richmond, I figured Earnhardt Jr. would talk like always. Sure, he'd be pissed about his consistent streak of top-12 finishes ending after he had a chance to run better at one of his favorite tracks. But he'd still offer a couple comments, at least.
When I made eye contact with his public relations representative, though, she shook her head no.
No? Had he already left before I had arrived and was no longer inside his hauler?
No, she answered, he's not talking.
In this case, making no comment actually left quite a big statement: Earnhardt Jr.'s 19th-place finish must have made him that furious, that frustrated.
Perhaps he didn't want to speak because he might say something bad about crew chief Steve Letarte's pit strategy, which forced Earnhardt Jr. to pit for fuel from a top-10 position with the laps winding down. Team chemistry is a fragile thing, and Earnhardt Jr. may have not wanted to disrupt it by making a comment he'd later regret.
Or maybe the pressure Earnhardt Jr. spoke about on Friday has made him more sensitive to an off-night. Where a bad race during last year's hopeless season was one of many, this year Earnhardt Jr. knows he's capable of much more and it infuriates him to not get the results.
Or maybe he just wanted to be left alone.
We won't get the answers to any of those questions until Friday at Darlington, when Earnhardt Jr. will have a scheduled media availability. After all, he's still fourth in the Sprint Cup Series point standings and, therefore, required to give a pre-race interview.
But at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr. said a lot by not saying anything at all.