He's on the right track

Earnhardt starts fast, poised to get back to Victory Lane

April 06, 2011|By George Diaz

I have a feeling about this.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to make some noise this season.

Not the usual "if he didn't have his daddy's last name he'd be working at Pep Boys" rumble that he has heard for years. This is more like a quiet thunder, all pointing to the likelihood of Earnhardt becoming relevant in more than just a personality contest.

A second-place finish at Martinsville solidified Earnhardt's push toward that relevancy. He has three top-10 finishes this season and is eighth in the points standings.

"Well, I ain't really proved it to myself yet," Earnhardt said after finishing second to Kevin Harvick at Martinsville. "I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally."

It's good to see that Earnhardt doesn't seem caught up in his brief wave of success. The NASCAR season is a marathon, not a sprint, and he has a bunch of laps to go before he is judged fairly on the quality of his work.

He still hasn't won a Cup race in his last 99 starts. He has won only three races over the last six Cup seasons. His last Chase appearance was in 2008, his first year with Hendrick Motorsports. And he has finished 21st and 25th in the points standings the last two seasons.

Yes, there is much work to do.

But the potential is there.

The only obvious difference between then and now is Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Letarte. There have been other voices in Earnhardt's ear, but maybe the message wasn't getting through clearly. Maybe this has as much to do with Earnhardt understanding the urgency of his situation. He has been the only guy stuck in the mud at powerhouse Hendrick.

"I trust what he's going to be able to do," Earnhardt said shortly after the crew chief switch was announced.

"Me and Steve have been spending a lot of time together. He's a bit of a motorboat. He talks a lot. You can't get a word in around him, but I tell you if you can hack it, that's about the only bad thing about him."

Junior definitely seems to be "hacking" it.

It's the best bit of news in a while for NASCAR, whose struggles in recent years coincide with Earnhardt's inability to remain competitive. Now Earnhardt is gaining star power for other reasons.

"I'm really thrilled," Earnhardt said. "I know it don't look like it, but I've got such a hell of an opportunity. This is such a great group to be around, and I'm having fun. I'm racing cars. It's all I've ever wanted to do.

"I want to run like this, I want to finish like this and run a little bit better than this on every weekend, and we are right on the outside of that, you know, and it's frustrating to be that close. It was frustrating to be leading the race (Sunday) with just a few inside 10 laps to go and be passed.

"But there's definitely a brighter side to what's going on, too, and I won't forget to notice that."

gdiaz@tribune.com

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