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Earnhardt Jr. Has Become A ‘Serious’ Contender

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 21 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is buckling down in his effort to win the Cup championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

LOUDON, N.H. – For years, people expected Dale Earnhardt Jr. to emulate his famous father and race for NASCAR championships.

And year after year, there has been nothing but disappointment for Junior and his legion of fans.

Now in his 13th full season in the elite Sprint Cup series, the 37-year-old Earnhardt has what appears to be his best chance yet to win his first Cup title.

Going into Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Junior is seventh among the 12 eligible drivers after finishing eight last week at Chicagoland Speedway, the first of the 10 races in the Chase for the championship.

But there is still plenty of time for Earnhardt to overcome the 17-point lead by Brad Keselowski.

The big plus for Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team this year has been and remains consistency.

In 27 races, a very determined Earnhardt has only one win, but he has registered 10 top fives, 18 top 10s and has finished worse than 15th only four times.

In a recent Sports Illustrated story, Earnhardt admitted that at times he may not have taken his racing as seriously as he needed to. Friday at the Loudon track, he said that attitude has changed.

“I would say, if I had known then what I know now, that I could put forth a better accountability and a better account of myself overall as a competitor,’’ he said. “At the time, you don’t realize what kind of opportunity you have got. … There’s a lot of trappings and things that you want to do that don’t involve racing. Just go have fun.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a victory in Michigan this season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

So, you goof off a lot.

“I can’t really sit here and have regrets about opportunities and chances gone by. I do find it a bit unfortunate that it took me this long to realize how much work I could have been doing and how much more I could have invested in the overall schedule of events and just what you do on a weekend.

“We had a lot of fun back then, and we didn’t have as much success as we probably should have,’’ Earnhardt added.

Junior said one big difference is that he now enjoys working hard.

“It’s not like it’s a burden,’’ he said. “I enjoy the relationship I’ve got with my crew chief and my team. … I guess we all get a little smarter and get a little older.’’

One thing that has definitely changed for the better is his physical condition. Earnhardt said he watches his diet much closer than in the past and tries to work out more.

“When you get tired physically, you can get lazy mentally,’’ he noted. “So I think that being in a little better condition has helped me quite a bit because some of those races are really tough. The Sonoma race, the races at Bristol, those are really tough races. I think I need to get tougher to be able to do what I need to do out there.’’

Earlier this week, there were big changes at JR Motorsports, with the team dismissing Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt’s uncle and cousin.

Junior, a co-owner of the primarily Nationwide-series team, was asked how he is dealing with that situation while attempting to focus on winning a Cup title?

“It doesn’t really weigh on me when I go to work,’’ he said. “It’s something that I can easily put aside when I’m at the race track this weekend.

“It was not easy to sever the working relationship with Pops (Eury Sr.) or Tony Jr. But we’re a company that wants to improve over what we’ve been doing, and we’re making some changes to see if we can make that happen.’’

Earnhardt, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports in Cup, said he and his sister, Kelley, another co-owner who oversees JR Motorsports, believe they have to maximize the relationship with Hendrick for the team to move forward.

They hired NASCAR veteran Ryan Pemberton as the team’s competition director, a role similar to what Eury Sr. had, and as interim crew chief for Danica Patrick, replacing Eury Jr.

Earnhardt pointed to Pemberton’s relationship with Steve Letarte, his Cup crew chief, and with team owner Rick Hendrick as important reasons for the changes.

“They have a lot of trust in Ryan, and believe in Ryan,’’ Earnhardt said. “I felt like he could come in there and bridge that gap (with Hendrick Motorsports) a little bit. That ultimately led to us having the conversation with Tony Jr., and him not quite agreeing with the direction, and us deciding to go in difference ways.’’

He said the decision has been made to run two cars full-time in Nationwide next season and that he will run three-to-five races in the second-tier series.

But, this weekend, Earnhardt’s total focus is on Cup and winning a race at a track where he has never quite made it to Victory Circle.

“It’s just a little bit frustrating that I haven’t won here because I feel like it’s a track that I should be capable of of doing that,’’ he said. “I’ve had some good cars here and I really like running here. I like short-track racing, and the corners and the speeds here kind of lend itself to that style.

“We just haven’t been able to finish the job,’’ Earnhardt explained. “So I kind of feel like it’s got to happen sooner or later, and I feel like it needs to happen now. There’s a bit of urgency. Not a whole lot, just enough to keep us motivated and real positive.’’

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 21 2012
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