“It’s been a rough road,” but Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes the Redskins can be good again. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. still misses the good ol’ days, when the Washington Redskins were the talk of the nation’s capital and his beloved team was the champion of the NFL. And like so many other Washington fans, the retired NASCAR driver is anxious to see the Redskins return to glory and regain their stature

“This is a genuine feeling, I think, among all the fans — not that the team doesn’t feel this way … but I think we just want to be relevant,” Earnhardt said Friday while taking a break from remodeling a Washington, D.C., school library in conjunction with the Redskins and Heart of America.

“I always felt like this was the nation’s team, man. We’re here in D.C.,” he said. “I know the Cowboys are ‘America’s team,’ but we’re in D.C. We’re supposed to win. And to be relevant again, and be respected in the NFL, is all that any team wants.”

While Earnhardt’s passion for the Redskins hasn’t waned, the mystique surrounding his favorite franchise has lost its luster. Washington hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1992, and the team has made only five playoff appearances since then.

But Earnhardt is hopeful change is coming.

“We’re right on the cusp of that,” he said of the organization being relevant again. “We’ve had some good success in the last several years.” But, he acknowledged, “It’s been a rough road.”

The Kannapolis, N.C., native has been rooting unabashedly for the Redskins for as long as he can remember, and he’s encouraged by the team’s improved offensive line and the organization’s decision to upgrade its secondary with key pieces, citing safety D.J. Swearinger, in particular. And Earnhardt is hoping Washington adds another franchise-defining player with the No. 13 pick in next week’s draft. Specifically, a defensive tackle.

“I think that defense is critical to winning games … and I think that there are still some areas where it could be a bit stronger,” he said, adding that “defensive tackle is where I hope they go” in the draft.

University of Washington prospect Vita Vea is the top-ranked defensive tackle, according to NFL.com lead draft analyst Mike Mayock, followed by Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne, Florida’s Taven Bryan and Nathan Shepherd of Fort Hays State.

Said Earnhardt: “To get a good defensive tackle that’s going to be around for a while and can help us on run defense, but also allow our [defensive] ends to get to the quarterback a little bit, so the pressure isn’t on the secondary all the time. Because those guys, no matter how talented the secondary is, they can’t guard all day long.”

As for the offense, Earnhardt is excited about the addition of former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Earnhardt highlighted Smith’s “professional” nature and leadership qualities as major assets, adding: “You love when the team gets locker-room guys and character guys that are bringing the team together and make the team feel like a family. And it seems like he will be a guy that will do that.”

Although he also cited Smith’s success in Kansas City (where the quarterback had a 50-26 record), Earnhardt acknowledged the “pressure” Smith will face in the D.C. market.

“The Redskins fans are waiting for success, they’re waiting for wins, they’re waiting for opportunities to get back to the playoffs,” he said. “And we expect the team to deliver, and he’ll be under pressure to do that.”

Earnhardt is hoping Smith & Co. will return the team to the height of popularity and reclaim its position among the league’s best franchises. Only time will tell whether that transition will take place, but one thing is certain: Earnhardt will be cheering on his Redskins in 2018 and beyond.

“It’s fun to pull for the team even though they don’t get the results that they hope for, or fans don’t see the results that they hope for,” he said, smiling. “Still, it’s funner to be a fan today because of the people, the guys, the individual players that we have. There’s a lot of great character guys that are fun to pull for and fun to watch.”

Read more on the Redskins:

Rating every game on the Redskins’ 2018 schedule

Five options for the Redskins in the first round of the draft

Who should the Redskins draft?: Derwin James vs. Da’Ron Payne

NFL agents name Redskins’ Bruce Allen league’s least-trusted executive in anonymous poll

Guard isn’t a sexy position, but the position’s value is rising, and the Redskins are in need

‘I’m not even mad, I’m impressed’: Redskins fan is sent signed photo of Dan Snyder