Sunday, March 27, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
FONTANA, Calif. -- There was a time not too long ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have considered a top-10 a victory. The past two seasons, top-10 finishes were few and far between for NASCAR's most popular driver. But with three consecutive finishes of 11th or better, Earnhardt comes into the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway with a different mindset than his past few visits to the 2-mile track located near the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.
"We've done a pretty good job of working well in practice and starting the race with some decent cars," Earnhardt said. "And I'm really happy with the way that things have [gone] during the [past three] races and how the car has gotten better during the races. That's a really good thing.
If Earnhardt is going to score his third top-10 of the season, he is going to have to earn it. The No. 88 qualified 30th Friday but rebounded during practice on Saturday. In the first practice Saturday, Earnhardt was 13th with a lap of 179.417 mph. In final practice, he slipped a little to 18th with a fast lap of 178.967 mph."We're capable of [top-10s]; we're good enough for that. You should come to the race track and expect to run around the guys that are in that position. I feel like we're a legitimate [top-10 team]."
Earnhardt had the fastest 10-lap average in the first practice at 177.941 and backed that up with the fourth-best 10-lap average in final practice at 177.348.
David Ragan paced final practice with a lap of 180.973 mph. Tony Stewart was second-fastest at 180.800 mph followed by Carl Edwards and Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
The good news for Earnhardt is he has already proven he can come from the rear and post a strong finish. Last week at Bristol, Earnhardt was too fast on pit road with 67 laps to go. Instead of calling it a day and riding to the finish, Earnhardt battled back and finished 11th.
"I want to finish good and tried to do whatever I could to finish good," Earnhardt said about last week's race at Bristol. "And I gave [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] the benefit of the doubt that we would improve the car and we did. And it was a pretty decent day. We should have finished higher. I screwed up speeding on pit road and that cost us a lot of spots there. But I'm just trying to do the best I can each week."
Earnhardt credits part of his recent success to feeling more comfortable in the car. In the past, Earnhardt wasn't sure what would happen if he got aggressive on the track. This year, he feels like he can take more risks, and it's paying off at the finish.
"We ran competitive in a couple races last year and showed some speed. For some reason this year, we've been able to improve a little bit better throughout the race and have been able to race in traffic a little bit better," Earnhardt said. "... I can definitely see a difference in how I can be more aggressive in the race with the car. Everything in practice and everything about the team, I don't feel like we're a ton different than last year. But when I get in the car in the race, I just feel like I've got a little bit more grip and a little bit more ability to be aggressive and challenge people. And at least that's how it's been for three weeks.
"There's just something about the car to be able to race a little bit more and race around guys. Normally, you're just hanging on to your car and just trying to keep your car underneath you and you're not really able to race other guys. You can't really even consider racing another competitor [because] you're so consumed with trying to control your own car. But this year that seems to be a little bit different where we've been able to go, 'All right, the car is kind of under us. Let's just race this guy real hard and take some risks and makes some passes and see what we can do.' "
Earnhardt hasn't posted a top-10 at Fontana since 2007. He is winless at the track and his career average finish of 22.3 is the third-worst of all tracks currently on the Cup schedule.
But this is Earnhardt's first trip to Southern California with Letarte as his crew chief. Four weeks into their new partnership, Earnhardt and Letarte have proven that together, they can make things happen. At this point last year, Earnhardt was 13th in points with one top-10. This season, Earnhardt comes into the fifth race of the season ranked ninth with two top-10s.
Earnhardt credits the improvement to an open dialogue between driver and crew chief.
"We just have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it's easy for us to have a conversation," Earnhardt said. "I've been spending a ton of time around the hauler all day long during each day on Friday and Saturday and when you're sitting there you just never know when that idea or that thought is going to come into your head or come into [Letarte's] head about what might really be able to help the car.
"And if you just sit around long enough, eventually it's going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation; I don't want him texting me on the phone while I'm in the bus going, 'Hey, I think I know what we can do.' I want to be there so that I can understand and talk about it. I think that's helping us."