(Earnhardt is still looking ahead for better days)
It may have been the most welcomed ninth place finish in recent NASCAR history.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line inside the Top 10 last Sunday at Pocono a sigh of relief from the 88 camp, Hendrick Motorsports and Junior Nation was heard from coast to coast.
That’s what a bummer of a summer so far leads to when a simple run inside the first ten finishers is heralded as a pretty major triumph. Even with a less than perfect day on pit road with a variety of miscues adding to the day’s challenges, Earnhardt was still pleased with the effort.
“We had a real good car, and we had some real good speed in the car," Earnhardt said. "We had some struggles on pit road, and I know the guys on the team will get that sorted out, and sometimes we just have mistakes.
"Sometimes the driver makes them, sometimes there's so many guys on the team it's rare when everyone is kind of clicking. We'll get it sorted out. We had good speed, though, we had a good car all day long, and real happy how that worked out."
A smiling Earnhardt has been rare in recent weeks with a string of mediocre finishes and frustrations causing some concern inside the team. After starting off the year in impressive fashion and staying near the front of the Sprint Cup Series standings Earnhardt has fallen to the tenth spot, desperately trying to cling on to the final Chase berth awarded by points.
Sunday’s ninth was Junior’s first Top 10 finish since his sixth place run in June’s first visit to Pocono. In between he’s been no better than fifteenth at New Hampshire and struggled to find the speed and consistency that punctuated his impressive open to the campaign.
“We’re not getting the finishes we did to open the year to be sure,” said crew chief Steve Letarte, “but I think it’s been for a variety of reasons. We have had weeks like Pocono where some issues on pit road came back to bite us, we had some strategies that didn’t turn out our way and there’s been a few other circumstances as well.
“But we’re not making excuses. We need to have speed in our racecars and to execute on pit road in order to Dale to have a shot at winning or at least finishing well. I have no concerns about his ability as a driver and am confident we’ll keep working hard with obviously a spot in the Chase our immediate goal.”
Earnhardt echoes Letarte’s confidence in his own ability. He spent most of his first three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports being uncompetitive and the turnaround this season has reminded Earnhardt of what can be accomplished with a good team behind his effort behind the wheel.
“I like to be reassured of what I feel like I can achieve,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It is nice to do good things and have success and get praised for it and hear people say good things about you.
“But I have to remind myself that I’m doing this for myself.”
Earnhardt says having confidence is a key to staying focused and not getting caught up in the attention he attracts when times are either good or bad.
"When you're not confident, everything you hear can work on you and you carry it into the car and it's in the back of your head, bugging you," Earnhardt said. "But I've got confidence and I feel like we can do it. We're a good enough team to do it. That sort of helps me get in the car and go, ‘Alright. Time to block everything out, no matter what it is. The media, my mom's birthday, whatever it is.'"
However being able to shut out the hype and spotlight that goes with being named Earnhardt and the sport’s perennial most Popular Driver.
That will only be magnified as the cut off to make the Chase draws nearer and this championship field is set after the trip to Richmond in five weeks.
“I can handle it," Earnhardt said at a media gathering in Charlotte to unveil the Mountain Dew 50th anniversary paint scheme his car will carry at Bristol later this month. "I've got a great relationship with you guys, and I feel like we can all communicate. We've communicated well in the past, and I feel like I won't be bothered by any extra attention when it comes to that at Richmond.
"Whether we're on the outside looking in or whether we're in a tight position points-wise, I'll be able to handle my responsibilities to the media and do whatever I have to do and try to have a good attitude about it. I'll try to answer everybody's questions without being a smartass about it, and go out there and try to do a good job on the racetrack."
The next chance to do that comes Sunday with the second road course race of the season at Watkins Glen, a track that has not been one of Earnhardt’s best throughout his NASCAR career.
However even with an average finish of 23rd staring him in the face, Earnhardt is keeping a confident mind set heading to the historic road circuit.
“I’m going to go in there with a positive attitude,” he said. “I’m going to go in there with the attitude that we can accomplish what we need to accomplish when we are there. Hopefully I can carry that through the whole weekend and have success.”
Which Junior Nation hopes will continue for the balance of the season.
|More NASCAR coverage|