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Earnhardt’s Race For Respect Picking Up Steam

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 24 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be shaping up as a dark horse prospect in this year's Chase. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

LOUDON, N.H. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t getting much respect these days, at least among the pundits of the sport.

Those in the media who make predictions about who will contend for or win championships don’t give Earnhardt much of a chance to do either this season.

Looking at the results of the past few seasons, who could blame them?

It’s been more than three years since the third-generation NASCAR star won a Sprint Cup race and a lot longer since he contended for a title.

Even his move to the elite Hendrick Motor Sports team in 2008 has not produced the kind of results that the millions of Earnhardt fans have hoped for.

His fuel-strategy-aided, third-place finish last week in the opener of the 10-race Chase for the championship perked up the spirits of a lot of those fans, though it has yet to make believers out of a lot of observers.

But Earnhardt himself is feeling a lot better about the situation these days.

“I think we made a pretty serious impact last week, and we just kind of need to keep that momentum going,’’ Earnhardt said as his team prepared his No. 88 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Qualifying has been a huge problem area for Earnhardt most of the season. His 12th-place qualifying

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets into his car for practice at Loudon. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

run Friday on the 1.058-mile Loudon oval was only the 10th time in 28 races that he has earned a starting spot in the top 20.

“(Qualifying) is the most important part that is hurting us,’’ Earnhardt said. “If we can get some better qualifying efforts and start closer to the front, we would not have to work the whole race just to get in position to run well.

“As good as we ran the last run at Chicago (last week), if we had of had track position all day long, we might have been able to win that race. Those are opportunities that we let get by us because of how we struggle in qualifying.’’

Overall, though, Earnhardt is comfortable with his situation, particularly his relationship with Steve Letarte, who became his crew chief over the winter.

That was part of the latest reorganization by team owner Rick Hendrick, who also moved Earnhardt into the shop he shares with five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

The experiment got off to a good start at the beginning of the season, with Earnhardt racing competitively and piling up some top-10 finishes. But, at midseason, the 88 team seemed to lose its way.

“We got off a little bit and have not run that well (for a while),’’ Earnhardt said. “The cars have not felt like I want them to feel, we have had some platform issues with the cars in the last eight to 10 races, and they have worked really hard before Chicago to fix that – and they did.

“The car was really good and it was similar to how we ran earlier this year, and how they felt and drove similar, which I liked. … Fixing a platform is pretty difficult to do. … I trust in Seve and believe in Steve and believe in the team. I never ever have any doubts about what the team wants to do, what they want to achieve and how they want to go about it. I am on board with what we are doing and feel confident that we are all the right pieces of the puzzle to make this thing work.’’

Earnhardt, who recently signed a contract extension with Hendrick, said he never doubted he is now in the right place.

“I feel lucky and fortunate to have the opportunity to work at Hendrick Motor Sports. When Rick makes a commitment like he made with me, it makes you want to go out and work hard and do the best job you can. It makes you want to make him proud.’’

Earnhardt is fifth in the points heading into Sunday’s 300-lap event.

He was asked if he feels like he has nothing to lose at this point and can simply race hard.

“I think we are in a real good spot,’’ Earnhardt replied. “I think there are 11 other guys with nothing to lose, either. They have the same attitude. That is what being in the Chase is about.

“It is time to put it all out there and see what happens. You have the rest of the field that is not in the Chase to have a lot to prove or maybe a chip on their shoulder for the fact they didn’t make the Chase.

“Everybody sort of races in a different way during these races,’’ Earnhardt continued. “It gets a little more intense. ‘’

A strong showing this week could go a long way toward giving Earnhardt and his team another real confidence boost.

“I like the racetrack and I like coming here to race,’’ Earnhardt said. “But you never know what you are going to get. These races are always real competitive and the racing is always aggressive. You kind of have to hope that we can put together a full day and the car will run well.’’

A good day by Earnhardt here and even the unbelievers may have to start reassessing their predictions.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 24 2011
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