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
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
”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
”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
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