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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "Last year we sort of fell off the radar"

Is he judged too harshly because of his name? Or not harshly enough? That's the eternal question, and of course I'm talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr.

This year he will be paired with 5-time champ Jimmie Johnson in the shop, have a new crew chief in Steve LeTarte and will try once again to get back up front and in Victory Lane and put to rest any argument about his ability to compete in NASCAR's top division.

When he wasn't answering endless questions about what his dad would think about things in today's NASCAR (as if he can channel the man ... come on, media), Jr. said he's aware of how badly the team performed in 2010, but is confident he will return to his winning ways.

"When you'e running good you can put up with about anything. It's not fun being on the radar when you're running like crap. But last year we sort of fell off the radar altogether," Jr. said. "I want to be in racing for a very long time, and I know that I can drive good enough to run well. You know, I'll stick around until I get it right. It's just eventually going to have to happen.

Jeff Gordon reflects on Sr.
It's been 10 years since the death of Dale Earnhardt, so expect a ton of talk about him in the coming week.

Jeff Gordon, who was a young lad when he first met Sr. and looked to him as a mentor and friend, was among those sharing his memories of his time with the legend and all that he learned from Earnhardt.

"I still have a hard time really even believing that he's gone. I had such amazing experience racing with him, time I spent with him away from the racetrack as well," Gordon said.

"You know, I think that's a legacy that will just live on forever, especially when you come to Daytona. The guy was just so amazing here. He just knew the draft and how these cars worked around the draft better than anybody. You couldn't help but be a student of that every time you're out there. And he certainly taught me a lot that led to some Daytona 500 victories, I believe."

Harvick ready to battle for title again
Harvick probably has more of a connection to Earnhardt than any other driver, considering he had to take over Earnhardt's car the week after his death ... a car he is still driving 10 years later at Richard Childress Racing.

Harvick said that when he first started driving the car, he couldn't help but feel uncomfortable, but that changed as he started to achieve on his own and emerge from Dale's shadow.

"You guys all know, I was very uncomfortable with it in the beginning, didn't like it, didn't want to be a part of it, and you know, as the last three or four years have come, I've learned to become more comfortable," Harvick said. "And I think the biggest reason is we've been able to accomplish a lot of things on our own."

And achieve he has, nearly winning the title in 2010 in a title race that literally went down to the last laps. He hopes to take that title step in 2011 and dethrone his nemesis Jimmie Johnson.

"The biggest thing is it's all about winning a championship at this point, nothing else. Nothing else is good enough at this particular point in time. So it's great to have a good year, and we had a good year last year, but in the end it's all about taking home the one trophy that we don't have, and that's the championship trophy. It's been a long time for Richard and it's been a long time since we've been able to experience that as a company, and we've experienced that a lot together as far as Nationwide championships and things like that, truck championships as owners. But those aren't good enough, either."

Hamlin: Qualifying must improve
If you believe Denny Hamlin, he didn't think about racing during the short NASCAR offseason.

"To be honest with you, I haven't even thought about racing in the last month. I really haven't, not one bit. You've just got to move past it. There's nothing we can do about it. There was obviously several one laps in certain races that changed a lot of things that happened during the course of the year, but that's racing," Hamlin said.

But if you believe that, you don't know Denny Hamlin. It was his title to lose at Homestead, and he gave it away. That has to sting. Luckily, he's young, has a long career ahead of him, and the new season is about to begin -- so he can try to avoid those mistakes and claim the throne this year.

He knows where he has to improve.
"There's a lot of areas that I've got to improve on, that I know I can improve on. Qualifying is one. I can't start dead last every single week like we did last season. Those are things that are going to help us finish better and obviously give us better chances to win more races."

Hamlin also refelcted on his very cool offseason charitable actions -- which included giving a vacation away in a Twitter contest.

"The winner was a true race fan. That was very cool. So she decided she wanted to go to the Brickyard, which is great that she could go anywhere and she decided she wanted to go to a NASCAR race. For me that is very rewarding to see that happen," Hamlin said. "For me, I don't know, I just have moments where it's just like, I look around and think about how fortunate I am and want to give back to the people that help in these stands and watch these races and buy our souvenirs."

Stewart 'ashamed' over Australia incident
Tony Stewart made some headlines in the offseason due to an off-track fight with a track owner in Australia, which almost got him in trouble with local police. (He spent some time in a jail cell, but was let go and allowed to return to the U.S.)

At Daytona for testing, Stewart was apologetic about the incident and said it was a mistake that left him embarrassed.

"Well, I'm definitely not proud of what happened, and if I had to do it all over again, I would have dealt with it much different. But we had been over there for almost five weeks, and we had been dealing with the same problem with the racetrack, so it wasn't something that was just one incident that led up to it. It was a combination of the whole trip. But there was such a dispute on how they were doing a couple different aspects of preparing the racetrack and what it was putting the drivers in the situations that we were put in," Stewart said.

"I'm home, and I'm back doing things that are getting my mind off of it, obviously. Like I said, this isn't something that I've blown off. I mean, I've lost a lot of sleep over it because I'm very embarrassed that I made it through a whole trip and the night before I come home I get in an altercation with somebody, and that really hasn't happened for a while. I'm not at all the least bit proud of it. I'm ashamed about it, but at the same time it's been nice to get back with the team and it's nice to come down here and worry about driving the race car again."

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