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So has Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned a corner?

  Earnhardt, at 35, needs to start making things happen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Hey, hey, now, what do we have here: Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting a nice, ripe eighth in the standings?
   It's been a long, long time since Earnhardt was sitting this pretty.
   Well, actually not – that second at Daytona, with that fast-closing charge, was a nice opener. But that 32nd at California was a stinger.
   But now five races into the season Earnhardt is looking a lot more solid than he has been in a while.
   And unlike some drivers in this sport, most of his rivals are hoping Earnhardt does get things turned around. He hasn't had a great season in several years.
    Can crew chief Lance McGrew get Earnhardt fired up again, motivated, confident?


  Kevin Harvick, on the pole for Sunday's Martinsville 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Rain washed out most of Friday afternoon at Martinsville Speedway, and Kevin Harvick lucked out, and so did Matt Kenseth – the top two men in the Sprint Cup standings thus getting the front row for Sunday's 1 p.m. start of the Goody's 500.
   "If you're going to have that happen, this is the place," Harvick said, referring to the pit road pit selection being as crucial as it is here. "This might be the 'worst qualifying' front row you've ever seen."
   "I don't really qualifying very well anywhere, particularly here," Kenseth said. "I'm probably the weak link on the team here."
    "It is a huge advantage to have that first pit stall," race-favorite Jimmie Johnson said. "You can have a bad pit stop, a 14-second stop, and still come out even with someone who has a 13-second stop."
     The three men to watch Sunday are, obviously, Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin. A win by anyone else would be an upset.

   Matt Kenseth, on the outside of the front row for Sunday's 1 p.m. start (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Still, Earnhardt drives for Rick Hendrick too, and maybe he can make something happen here.
    Earnhardt, now 35, with his last great season in 2004, certainly needs to make something happen eventually.
    And there are signs things are improving.

     "The reason we are running better is the changes we made in the off season...and that has given us some confidence," Earnhardt says.
    "Everybody can see a little different step in our walk.
     "Last year when we were struggling, and we would show up and unload the car and it was a little bit off, it was really easy to accept it. It was disappointing as hell. There was no reaction of 'We can fix it.'
    "You didn't really have that feeling of confidence that that could happen.
    "If it was the practice before qualifying, those last 10 (last season), that was the feeling that I had -- I figured if we did fix it, oh, well....and if we didn't, that wouldn't surprise me either.
     "But this year you have that feeling that anytime a little thing goes wrong, a little switch comes on: 'We can probably fix this.'
     "We just have so much more communication going on.
      "Lance has done a lot of great things. When he came in as the crew chief (late last spring), he built a few cars he thought needed to be a little different in some ways. I drove them, I liked them.
     "In the off season, once he understood that was his right to do so, he made the changes to the team.
      "He deserves a lot of credit."

    It's been a long strange ride for Earnhardt, who arrived at Rick Hendrick's in 2008 full of hope. He opened with a win in Daytona Shootout, got a tour win at Michigan that summer, albeit on gas mileage, and he made the championship playoffs. But the last part of that season things began to fall apart. Then last spring, with Earnhardt clearly mired in a slump, Hendrick pulled the plug, changed crew chiefs, put in McGrew and moved Tony Eury Jr. to another spot, and waited to see what happened next.
   So far little has.
   However now there seems much more promise in the Earnhardt-McGrew camp. They're paired with Mark Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson, whose team came within a hair of winning the 2009 championship. So Earnhardt and Martin have equal cars, and that should be a benchmark.
    That first season, the way it ended, still sticks in Earnhardt's craw: "We were running pretty good all year...then it all went to hell."
    And last year, much of the problem was that Earnhardt's three teammates, Martin, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were all thriving. In fact the three finished 1-2-3 in the standings, while Earnhardt slumped to 25th.


   Jeff Gordon's crew puts a raincoat on his Martinsville car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "Lance made a lot of changes in the off season, made a lot of calls he had to make, knew he had to pull the trigger on a few things," Earnhardt says.
    "The guys, myself included, really erased what happened in the past and tried to start fresh and imagine a better future for ourselves...and imagine ourselves being more competitive.
    "The changes helped a lot. The people we moved in, and moved around, helped a lot.
     "The relationship with Lance -- I was counting, and I think I have worked with about six different crew chiefs -- now Lance, we aren't kin, so we have to respect each other more, because of our different backgrounds and upbringing.
    "The longer we work together the more respect we have for each other.
     "He backs me up a little bit more than I am used to. He has my back in a lot of situations."
      Earnhardt's radio rant at Bristol, after being caught speeding on pit road, caught everyone's ear. But he's downplaying that as just the heat of the moment. And he did wind up seventh.
     "Even though I was upset, I wasn't upset at him, I was upset at NASCAR," Earnhardt said.
    "I will be the first to admit I sped; I went over the speed limit. It wasn't that I was arguing I wasn't speeding, it is just that I saw the guy in front me that was going to pit before the start/finish line, and the timing line, gun his car for about five stalls...and I gunned mine for maybe one and a half or two stalls, and it is just frustrating to be caught.
     "The reason I was able to keep my composure (at Bristol, after that pit road speeding penalty) was because I knew he wanted the same result I wanted. I knew he was pulling for me.
      "I have a right to feel however I want to feel, or get upset about things I want to get upset about. I'm just a human being.
      "The thing about a really good crew chief is he will know exactly what to say for each situation.
       "Lance knew to cheer me back to my game and steer me in that direction with a little pep talk. And he did it, and that is what I needed.
       "Maybe at times it is his job, maybe it ain't.
      "Maybe it is my job to keep my head together.
       "But if he sees me going off on the wrong path, he cares enough to want to fix it, and helped me out a lot at that moment...because I was really really upset about how that went down."
    And all's well that ends well....

    Earnhardt is not difficult to coach; he's not a prima donna. In fact, he's really a good ol' regular guy, the kind of guy you'd like as a next door neighbor (well, now that he's learned to keep the stereo turned down lower).
    "Every situation is different, and the good people know exactly what each situation calls for," Earnhardt muses. "Throughout my career, everybody has said I wasn't focused...especially when my daddy was alive and out there running like he did.
     "Everybody would compare me to him and say I lacked so much determination...didn't have the will-power, and all that he had.
     "He wore it on his sleeve, and I don't really do that.
      "Even after he passed away, I still got that I 'didn't have focus,' and this, that, and the other.
     "That followed me throughout my career.
      "But any time somebody would say I laid down, or insinuated I might, it just sort of ticked me off a little bit."
     Now, though, he's maturing. Last season's woes made a decided change in his attitude.
      "I have the confidence we can do this the right way and accomplish our goals," Earnhardt says now.
     "We haven't turned a corner," though he warned. "We are maybe turning the corner, but we haven't quite got there yet.
     "We are approaching it, maybe. But we got a lot to fix, still.
     "I think the next 10 races will reveal where we are still weak and where we need to work as a team.
     "We showed at Fontana, Atlanta and Vegas where we need to be better.
     "We got fortunate last week (at Bristol) to get ourselves in the top-12.
      "We have a lot of work to do. I have the confidence we can fix it, but I just know we need to be better.
      "It is important not to get too really satisfied with how things are going."

                      The starting lineup for Sunday's Goody's 500 at Martinsville    



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    Jimmie Johnson ponders the rain at Martinsville (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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