The Hot Pass: Dale Jr. feels pressure, but also expects a lot of himself

When is the pressure not on Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

From the moment Junior climbed behind the wheel of a racecar in Late Model Stocks, there has been pressure — the pressure to perform and the pressure to live up to the Earnhardt name.

And now, Earnhardt finds himself entering the third season of a five-year contract at Hendrick Motorsports with the most competitive equipment in NASCAR and the pressure still refuses to fade.

“I feel a lot of pressure from (the media) or from the public to live up to the expectations,” Earnhardt said. “You sort of get the headlines every offseason about what everybody expects you to do this next season. I’ve dealt with it over time, and you just kind of wait for that. Most of the time, the headlines sting a little bit, so you just kind of wait for that to wear off.

“So there’s three guys that made the Chase, and we didn’t, so … we have to get out there and prove ourselves. I don’t really know if I can get more detailed than that, but we’re just going to go out there and try our hardest and be ruthless from the first lap to the last.”

Earnhardt hasn’t lost confidence. Despite missing the Chase for the second time in the past three seasons and struggling through a winless streak that stretches back 57 races, Earnhardt said he wasn’t ready for the 2009 season to end. He was finding his groove with crew chief Lance McGrew and referred to the relationship as “comfortable.”

“I don’t feel like there’s much to do jel-wise with us,” Earnhardt said. “Maybe some small things. But, for the most part, we should aspire to come out and be quick right off the bat.”

Although the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports pit crew won’t change in 2010, several changes to the engineering staff were made in the offseason “to change the entire culture of the shop.”

Engineers Chris Heroy and Kevin Holstein moved over from the No. 5 team, while Chris Daugherty transferred from HMS research and development to the No. 88 squad.

Teammate Mark Martin has been a staunch supporter of Earnhardt. He said with the working relationship between McGrew and his crew chief Alan Gustafson, having the Nos. 5 and 88 teams under one roof makes both programs stronger than they were before.

“That’s progress,” Martin said. “That’s our commitment. I think for (Earnhardt’s) sake and for Hendrick’s sake both, things have got to get better than they were last year. If they only make minor progress in the performance side, and they have the opposite kind of racing luck than they had, they will have a Chase-making and very, very respectable season."

Earnhardt said he’s committed “to win as many races as we can and win the championship.” In real terms, Earnhardt said “winning anything less than three races” in 2010 would leave him disappointed.

Yes, Earnhardt feels the pressure to succeed. But his objective is far from selfish.

“I want to get to the end of my contract and Rick (Hendrick) be happy with what we did,” Earnhardt said. “My goal, right now, is for him to say, ‘I’m glad I did this with Dale Jr. This was a good deal. We had a little rough patch, but overall, I’m glad we did. We have some things to be proud of.”

The ever-expanding blue oval

Ford fielded eight full-time teams last season, but could run as many as 11 in 2010. Roush Fenway Racing will sport its four squads — the Nos. 6, 16, 17 and 99. The Nos. 9, 19 and 43 will join the No. 98 Yates Racing team to make up Richard Petty Motorsports. And Front Row Motorsports is locked in with two cars — the Nos. 34 and 37 (which is expected to announce Peter Sospenzo as crew chief) and perhaps a third car for David Gilliland.

Paul Menard, who was absorbed in the Yates Racing /RPM merger, said the transition between the two companies has been good.

“I thought it would be more of a stroll than it was with the transition,” Menard said. “Yates was based in Concord (N.C.) — that’s where RPM ultimately is going to be based. Right now, we have to redo the shop, so we’re out of Statesville (N.C.)

“Everything is a recipe for things not getting done, but things are getting done.”

On the move

Jimmy Kitchens is replacing Greg Newman on the spotter stand for Ryan Newman and the No. 39 Chevrolet. Kitchens, a former driver and member of the Alabama Gang, most recently performed spotting duties for Casey Mears on the No. 07 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing.

Say what?

Everyone needs a straight man. For Tony Stewart, his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin filled the role perfectly last weekend at Nashville.

Hamlin: "Somebody asked me, ‘What does Jimmie (Johnson) have that you can use more of?’ I told them talent, first."

Stewart: "I told them a good-looking wife."

Hamlin: "A lot of things crossed my mind, but I figured talent was a good one."