Earnhardt modest about fast NASCAR season start

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had never filled out an NCAA tournament

bracket before this year, even though he’s a hoops fan.

He would have done it earlier, but he doesn’t like to lose.

”I didn’t really know if brackets were even that fun to do,”

he said Friday. ”I hate making the wrong pick, but what are you

going to do? There’s a lot of games.”

NASCAR’s most popular driver seems to be getting a whole lot

closer to some more important victories during his outstanding

start to the year. With two top-five finishes already, Earnhardt is

second in the standings through four races, trailing Brad

Keselowski by nine points heading into Sunday’s race at

Fontana.

After his second straight second-place finish at the Daytona

500, Earnhardt followed up with three solid races, coming in fifth

at Phoenix, seventh in Las Vegas and sixth last weekend at Bristol

despite a rough day. Earnhardt has been driving too long to get

excited a mere month into the season, even if his fans don’t share

his caution.

”When I hear people talking about the fast start, I just feel

like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the

equation,” he said. ”We’ve had good fortune. We’ve got real

lucky. … We’ve ran well. We’ve had good cars, too. We also had

real good fortunes on where we were restarting, what lane we were

in, and just having good opportunities to get positions for various

reasons at the end of these races.”

His teammates realize it’s more than luck that’s keeping

Earnhardt up front. He’s already comfortable in NASCAR’s new Gen-6

car, which suits his driving skills well.

”Junior Nation, as we all know, is very vocal and large,”

Jimmie Johnson said. ”Any time he wins, it’s a nice reprieve from

the pressure that’s associated with that. It would mean a lot to

him on many levels, and for his team. They’ve been getting so much

stronger year after year, week after week, and I think they’ll be

winning on a regular basis here before long.”

There’s a good reason Earnhardt always brings discussions about

his early steadiness back around to the importance of finishing

first. He has made a tradition of getting off to strong starts –

most notably in 2004, when he won at Daytona and Atlanta early –

only to cool off late in the season.

Earnhardt has been fairly consistent in recent seasons, yet has

still won only four races in the last eight years. His victory at

Michigan last August was his first win since 2008.

Yet his current start is his best yet: Earnhardt had never put

up an average finish of better than 10.25 in the first four races

of the Sprint Cup series. He’s just one of five drivers to complete

all 1,283 laps this season, and nobody has spent more time on the

lead lap – 99.53 percent, or all but six laps.

”It’s a long year, and we’re going to have some bad luck,” he

said. ”It’s bound to happen. Nobody runs the whole season

perfectly, and I’m just trying to get as many points as we can

early, so when that bad luck comes, it doesn’t hit us as hard as it

hits some of these guys early.”

Earnhardt saw the importance of early points up close last

season, when Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff

Gordon got off to slow starts and spent all summer playing

catch-up. After two straight trips to the Chase, Earnhardt has

proved he knows plenty about consistency.

While other drivers whine about the new Gen-6 car’s quirks and

worry about its development during its first four races, Earnhardt

has been a vocal supporter from the start, and his comfort is

showing up on the track. Earnhardt’s Chevy SS is lighter and more

suited to his driving style.

Earnhardt also loves the well-worn 2-mile track at Fontana,

where he finished third last year.

”I like racetracks where you can move,” Earnhardt said. ”It’s

real rough down the straightaways, really. The corners are fine,

not rough at all. If they would just re-pave the straightaways,

this place would be a blast. … We should have a pretty good run

here if we do everything right.”

If last week was an indication of Earnhardt’s readiness, this

could be his time. Earnhardt started 32nd at Bristol and moved up

26 spots, with third-year crew chief Steve Letarte guiding him

through smart pit stops.

When Kahne won, he brought Hendrick’s Victory Bell into the shop

for everybody’s enjoyment – and it served as a reminder to

Earnhardt.

”Every employee rings the ball,” Earnhardt said. ”It’s fun. I

enjoyed that. I thought it was a good way to bring everybody

together as one unit, one team. I’m ready to ring the hell out of

it.”

When Earnhardt isn’t working on another win, he’s checking out

his bracket, which he said was 11-5 on Thursday. As a big fantasy

football player and a North Carolina basketball fan, he’s even got

a strong feeling about the NCAA final.

”I think Indiana will beat Duke,” he said. ”I’m not a big

Duke fan.”