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Is it time to put some money down on Dale Earnhardt Jr?

   Mr. Popularity (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


    No one knows how tough it is to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. better than Earnhardt himself.
    So while the buzz this spring is the seeming resurgence of the son of the stock car racing legend, Junior himself has been more circumspect about it all.

    Why is Earnhardt downplaying things this season?
    "It's because I am the only one under the pressure to keep it up," Earnhardt says succinctly.
    "I hope I can come into the next race and keep up the consistency and do it again…and do it again."
    Earnhardt, though still mired in that long winless streak, opened the season with the pole for the Daytona 500. He got caught up in one of the crashes and wound up 24th. But since then he's logged a string of solid finishes: 10th, eighth, 11th, 12th, second (Martinsville), ninth and fourth.
    That elusive victory seems ever closer. And when Earnhardt posted the quickest lap in Friday practice for Saturday night's Richmond 400 – the 'Crown Royal presents the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400' – the sense was growing that this may be the weekend.

      This night-time racing at Richmond is pretty exciting, and certainly a visual treat (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Earnhardt didn't have a great qualifying run Friday night, and he'll start back in 22nd. But he's in good company -- with teammate Jimmie Johnson, who says he's been focusing more on race setup than qualifying.
     Juan Pablo Montoya and Regan Smith took the front row for the 7:30 p.m. start.
     Of course Earnhardt would have to beat a lot of hot iron here: in particular, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart, and probably Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon.
     Some might wonder if, even if Earnhardt got in a challenging position down the stretch, as he did at Martinsville a few weeks ago, Earnhardt would know how to make that winning move.
    But Earnhardt, in a very good performance at Talladega the last time out, pushing teammate Johnson to victory in a sizzling finish, showed he's still got the cool.
    Still he concedes "It's a lot of pressure to try and keep going…and try to keep up the expectations that everybody has for you. 
     "So when we accomplish certain goals -- like when we win a race, or a couple of races, or make the chase, or win a race in the Chase, or battle for the championship -- those are the kinds of things I can be excited about.
      "And I am happy to be consistent.
     "But we still have another step to go: we are running seventh, eighth, ninth at Texas when we should be running third, fourth, fifth.
     "I can understand when one or two cars really hit on something and just outrun the field. But you want to be right behind them, if you are not one of those two; you want to be right there. 
     "We are hustling, and hustling pretty hard. But hustling just inside the top-ten. We need to step up just another notch."

     The man on the pole: Juan Pablo Montoya. But can he win? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     This fast three-quarter-mile track used to be one of Earnhardt's best. But lately he's struggled.
     It's not just here, he concedes.
     "If you pick out the three or four that maybe were my best, I've struggled at all three or four of them the last couple of years," Earnhardt says.
     "My last couple of years I have struggled every weekend.
      "The changes we've made seem to be working everywhere else…and I hope they work this weekend.
     "Every time we go to the track, it's me and Steve (Letarte, his crew chief) going to the track for the first time together. There is a lot of anticipation…tons of anticipation."
      Part of the difference this season has been Letarte, whose decidedly upbeat approach to this life is clearly having an effect on Earnhardt.

       Jimmie Johnson says he can sense optimism in his teammate (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

      Letarte stays so upbeat that Jimmie Johnson recounted this conversation between his own crew chief Chad Knaus and Letarte, who both work in the same shop: "Chad told Steve 'I can't understand how you can be so happy all the time.' And Steve responded 'And I can't understand how you can be so angry all the time.'
   "The two are polar opposites."
    And part of the difference this season has been Earnhardt talking more to his crew, offering better information.
   Earnhardt says his whole communications effort has changed since he joined the Rick Hendrick operation: "I got better at being plugged in.
   "I got better at my communication when I first started working with Hendrick…because how they do things is different than what I've done in the past at DEI.
    "The team meetings after the practices…the team meetings during the week prior to the races…the communication between the driver and the crew chief being more on a daily basis.
     "All those things are opportunities for an idea to pop up, or for you to just be continuously giving the crew chief and the team your information and your thoughts, and vice-versa.
    "We never really did much of that at DEI. We just kind of showed up and went to the track. And if Pops (Tony Eury Sr.) needed to know something, he'd call me and ask me.
    "But at Hendrick they just do it differently. So I think I've gotten better at utilizing their approach, and utilizing their ideas on what communication is.
    "And that's helped me a lot."
    Johnson, now paired with Earnhardt in the Hendrick camp, says he's been learning more and more about Earnhardt this spring.
   "It's amazing how much more interaction you have with the driver that's in your shop," Johnson says. For years that teammate was Jeff Gordon, until Hendrick decided to change up things for this season.
    "I would see Junior in passing at team meetings. But now there is a lot more time that I spend with him, whether it's talking or through e-mails.
    "I got home and Monday morning I had three e-mails from him explaining different scenarios about what he thought went on with the car and how to make our stuff better. And then I looked at who he had sent it to, and it was the engineers, the crew chiefs, and me. 
    "I don't know what he was like before, or if this is new. But I have seen his commitment from afar -- and I know we've all hoped for a little more success for him.
     "I'm excited to work with him, to really see that first-hand.
    "And at times (like during the Talladega 500) his sense of humor really keeps things light-hearted. I had a blast listening to him during the race at Talladega.
   "I've asked Chad if I could have his radio (channel) at other tracks, so I can tune-in -- and pick my spirits up. But he won't let me."
    Johnson has also watched Earnhardt and Letarte and how they work together. Letarte is the latest in a series of crew chiefs that Hendrick has paired with Earnhardt, and he seems to be the most successful since Earnhardt's brilliant 2004 season with the Eurys.
    "I think a big factor in their consistency, and in the confidence I see in Dale Jr. today, is the chemistry between him and Steve," Johnson says.
    "This sport is about people. We always say it. We preach about in our team, and why it's had the success that it's had.
     "It really boils down to people and the relationships those people have.
     "What they have is working.
      "Now it was tough to understand -- from my standpoint -- when Rick wanted to change everything around. I'm like 'Wait! It's been great, the  relationship with Jeff. Let's not change anything.'
    "But they needed to change it around, and it's worked great for Dale and his team.
    "And I've seen a great relationship between Jeff and Alan (Gustafson, his new crew chief, last year with Mark Martin), and some new technology coming through that relationship.
    "And you can put Mark Martin in anything and you know he's going to be fast. He's really helped Lance (McGrew, Martin's new crew chief, last year with Earnhardt) be confident in the areas that Lance needs some more confidence in.
    "The restructuring that went on has been very good for Hendrick Motorsports as a whole. And it's only going to make it stronger."


    And what to expect from the Sprint Cup tour leader in Saturday night's short track battle? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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