By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - After enduring 55 races without a win and doubts from critics about his competitive fire, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still bubbling with excitement from his Daytona 500 triumph, a victory he said had vindicated him.
"If you look at how happy I was Sunday after winning that race, you'll know how bad I want to win," Earnhardt told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday.
"You'll know how much winning means to me, and you'll know from now on that there's no questioning my killer instinct or drive, whatever term you want to use."
NASCAR's most popular driver for 11 years running, Earnhardt made good on his promise to finally join the social media world should he win Daytona, and his selfie, posed in front of a statue depicting his late father holding his own Daytona 500 trophy, went to more than 400,000 followers.
"Look who I ran into at the Daytona Experience. Dad's Happy!" tweeted a beaming Earnhardt to his legion of fans.
The Hall of Fame driver's son, of course, was over the moon by his thrilling victory in the rain-interrupted race that finished late in the night and gave him his second Daytona 500.
"I don't think people realized how much winning mattered to me," said Earnhardt, who had suffered through a fallow period with only two victories since 2006 after winning 15 times in his first five full seasons.
"When you look at the critics and you look at their comments, aside from people saying I was overrated, they would always say I didn't have killer instinct, I didn't have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship, I didn't want it bad enough," he listed.
"When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did, because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death."
Earnhardt had no explanation to cover his difficult stretch.
"I don't know why, in '09, '10 we were 20th, 25th every week. I look at that now, I can't even imagine it," he said about his early struggles after joining powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. "It's such a long ways from where we are now.
"I've been pretty vindicated."
Earnhardt said the Daytona 500 could launch him to even greater heights.
"We're embarking on a season that could be something really special for me. Whether we win the championship or not remains to be seen, obviously. But I had one of my greatest years last year, and I think we can top that this season."
Earnhardt scoffed at the notion that as NASCAR's most popular driver, he carried the weight of the sport on his shoulders.
"I don't really feel that way. I feel like I represent Junior Nation," he said. "I represent my fan base and the people that support our team.
"I don't carry the whole sport on my shoulders. We have enough personalities in the sport to do that individually."
One thing on his agenda he hoped to tick off as soon as possible was a viewing of his Daytona 500 win.
"I think it really was an exciting race and one of the most exciting Daytona 500s I've ever been in, and one of the most intense races I've ever been in. We were really having fun," he said, including his rival drivers.
"I cannot wait to watch it. I bet I watch it three times in a row, back-to-back. I can't wait."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry)