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Is it finally once again time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to shine at Daytona....or just write off the season as lost?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- time for reflection (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Dale Earnhardt Jr. once dominated NASCAR plate races, like Saturday night's 400, but not lately.
   Can he turn that around this weekend?
   Well, he knows he's in a hole.
   But he sure drove inspired last Sunday at Loudon.
   Maybe things are changing.
   But from the outside it appears that Earnhardt's biggest challenge at the moment is not in the mechanic end of this sport but the mental side.
   Can he get fired up enough to make things happen? Or is it nearing time to simply write off this season – he's 19th in the Sprint Cup standings, 760 points behind tour leader Tony Stewart, and 285 points below the 12th-place playoff cut.
    So what's Earnhardt's goal?
   "It's going to be quite a challenge for us to make the chase," Earnhardt, starting 19th Saturday night, after rain washed out Friday qualifying, says. "We've got a lot of guys to catch. And we can't just expect to top-10 them to death."
    Several teams have had tire problems in practice for Saturday's Daytona 400, including Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, who had tires delaminate. It's unclear if that will be a significant issue in the 400 (8 p.m. EDT).
   "We'd like to win a race or two before the end of the year," Earnhardt says. "We have quite a ways to go to be able to make the chase.
   "We're still mathematically in it, but we're not trying to catch just one guy that we're 200 and some points behind, we're trying to catch four or five guys. And it's unrealistic to expect all them guys to have enough trouble.
    "So we've got to run better. And even though we have improved it seems, we still need to get better.
    "To be able to drive up into the top-three last week was a lot of fun. But we need to be able to stay there once we get there.
    "Making the chase is the goal…but at the end of the year, when you're done racing at Homestead, and you've run the last lap, and you get out of the car, what kind of feeling do you want to have?
    "The one I want to have is that we've fixed it, that we've got something we can feel good about and work on and get all our stuff ready for next year and feel like we can go in and get the job done.
    "Right now, that's not how we feel as a team. We've got a little bit more to go."
   So what's Earnhardt's gut feeling about how things are going? Does he feel he's getting the job done? Does he feel the team is getting the job done?
   After all, his three official teammates, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin are looking much better, and Tony Stewart, also in Hendrick equipment, is even leading the tour standings.
    "I can judge it pretty good. I know what's going on," Earnhardt says. "I know everything going on behind the scenes, and everything that's not readily available to everyone.
    "I see I've been more comfortable in the car. I've liked what I've felt from the race cars over the last couple of weeks.
    "Lance (McGrew, his new crew chief) and I seem to communicate well. He's very excited, and we root each other on throughout the race.
    "The team has a great attitude, and it seems to get better with each run.
    "We seem to show a little more promise.
    "In 2004, and even as recent as last year, I don't remember working this hard to run better than we're running now.
    "The COT, if you fall behind a little bit, it takes more to get back than it used to. You used to be able to rebound in a week or two. But if you get behind in this sport now, there is a chance you may not recover for some time.
    "So it has definitely been a trying time.  Our team was really, really low.
    "But knowing where we were and how I felt two months ago to now, I can definitely say it's a big difference for us."

    And what about his own sideline NASCAR team, JR Motorsports? General Motors surprised him by withdrawing support two weeks ago, leaving that operation dangling. There has been speculation Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick might try to turn that Nationwide operation into a Cup operation; for one thing, it's easier to get sponsorship for a Cup team than a Nationwide team.
   But then NASCAR's planned changeover to a Car-of-tomorrow design for the Nationwide series is going to be quite expensive.
   Earnhardt says he's not sure what's really going on behind the Nationwide scenes.
   "I haven't had any conversations with anyone in the sport about the (new) car. I haven't had any diagrams or ideas or drafts in front of me to look at," Earnhardt says. "I am just waiting in the wings like everybody else. 
    "We really didn't involve ourselves any in the equation of developing the car (with NASCAR).  We have our budget worked out to where we can run this year (Nationwide) with what we have, but we don't have the money to develop this car. You'd be lucky to be able to do it just under $150,000, in just pre-season development. 
    "So before you even run a race, you have spent a couple hundred thousand dollars…and we do not have that as a company. 
   "So we can't involve ourselves in the development of it. So we are, like everyone else, waiting on whoever that team is – Richard Childress or Jack Roush or whoever -- that is that will be a part of developing that car with NASCAR.
   "I am sure it will be a safer race car. 
    "Hopefully we have learned a lot from what we have done the last three years from the Cup level (with the balky car-of-tomorrow) to make a better race car than we have now in the Nationwide series. 
   "The car we have now in the Nationwide series, in my opinion, is the ultimate race car. 
    "Brad Keselowski said 'If I look at the (current) Nationwide series car, I would brag to my friends and show it off to them.' And he said he wants to be able to do that with the new car as well -- he wants to be excited about the way it looks and how it drives.
   "So I feel like hopefully they will develop a new car that will be exciting and fun to watch."

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