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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he’s going to win a lot of races … and it actually sounds believable

Unless my ears were deceiving me, I think I heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. say something very interesting on TV after his 2nd place run at Martinsville.

The line was: “We’re going to win a bunch of these races.”

And he sounded like he meant it, for good reason. He had just come within a few laps of winning his first race in almost three years. And it wasn’t the first time this year that he has been up front, evidenced by his current 8th place position in the standings.
Much of that, of course, can be attributed to his new crew chief, Steve Letarte, who was paired with Jr. for the first time after an offseason crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports between Dale Jr., Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

As much as a driver can get a team to Victory Lane, it’s also essential that the driver works well with his crew chief … when this happens, good finishes and even wins come more naturally.

Following his near-win, Dale was very complimentary of his new crew chief – giving him most of the credit for their great finish.

“We only got there through the strategy that Steve had staying out. Caught a bunch of guys a lap down, out of sequence on pit stops,” Earnhardt said. “So all of the credit really goes to Steve for the finish we had today and the team for really kind of plugging away and making the adjustments, even though some might not have worked as good as others. We still needed to make some effort, put some effort into making the car better and those guys kept going all day long.”

For the legion of Jr. Nation out there, seeing him bump-and-run past Kyle Busch to take the lead with 20 laps to go must have been an awesome sight. And even though there was no guarantee that it would result in a win, and ultimately it did not happen, the way Jr. finished Sunday is significant – because it symbolizes that he is returning to his old form.

Newer fans might not realize this, but the son of NASCAR’s most popular driver of all time actually used to win races quite regularly when he was with DEI – he won quite a few, believe it or not. I swear I’m not making that up.
So while on one hand I was surprised to see Jr. up front at the end, at the same time it served as a reminder to us longtime fans that underneath this slumping driver there lies someone who can compete like he used to.

One key to winning, and contending for titles, is making good days out of bad ones. That’s what happened to Jr. on Sunday.
“We really were not a Top 5 car all day. We worked really hard to stay inside the Top 10 all day,” Jr. said. “Made a lot of changes on the car, we made several changes trying to find that speed.

At the end, Jr. probably could have dumped Harvick to take the win, but didn’t want to be “the bad guy” just to get the win (though I doubt Busch or Harvick would have been as nice).

Since it’s been a while since he tasted victory, Jr. was especially eager to take the flag first.

“I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race. Hell, I'm not sitting there leading that thing by seven car lengths thinking I'm about to lose. That's definitely not a good attitude to have at that point. I was definitely thinking I need to do what I think's right every corner and try and win this race. I've got a hell of an opportunity right here and if I can put together decent laps, I might be able to keep the distance I had on him which was only about three or four car lengths. But I just couldn't do it. I made some mistakes in the corners and the back end of the car was giving up on me a little bit.”

“We had an opportunity to win the race. I'm disappointed that I didn't get the job done and it will probably bother me more and more as the night goes on. But I'll probably think about it a million times what I probably could have done differently.”
The good news for Jr. is that despite losing the race, he can realistically talk about contending regularly and making the Chase for the first time in a while.

“We gained a lot of points on some guys that were around us today. The 4 and the 56 had some trouble. We just need to try to put some distance on some guys and get ourselves the opportunity to be in the Chase when the time is up. Steve is a good crew chief and he's going to give me more opportunities like this I feel.”

Despite his strong start to 2011, Jr. isn’t getting too high on himself and recognizes that he has a lot of improvement to make if he’s going to be a true contender..

“Well, I ain't really proved it to myself yet. I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally. Anyone that watched that race today knows that we weren't a second place race car or even a third place race car all day. We never were up there to prove that point. So there's no argument. We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we still got a little ways to go.”

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

Whether Jr. actually wins a lot of races remains to be seen, but I know one thing – the fact that he say that with a straight face is a good sign for the future.

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