Earnhardt Jr. Eyes RIR Repeat

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The No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team finally seems to have found some consistency in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

With that in mind, and the fact he won last year’s spring race at Richmond International Raceway, you’d think Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be chomping at the bit to get back to the .750-mile Virginia oval.

Not necessarily.

“We generally run well at Richmond, but I ain’t going to guarantee a whole lot there because we struggled with the car at the fall race there last year,” said Earnhardt Jr., who qualified 14th for Saturday's race. “We tested at Lakeland (Fla.) and we have improved on our stuff for Richmond a bit, but you can’t ever tell.”

The green flag is scheduled to drop Saturday shortly after 7:30 p.m.

Jeff Gordon, a previous two-time winner at Richmond, holds the track qualifying record of 126.499 mph, set in May of 1999.

Earnhardt Jr. led the final 30 laps to win last year’s Pontiac Excitement 400 at RIR, taking the lead from his father, who eventually finished 10th in that race. The fall race didn’t produce disastrous results (he finished 13th), but Earnhardt Jr. was only able to qualify 13th and had to battle to come home with a top-15 finish.

In his four NASCAR Busch Series starts at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr. won twice (both in the fall) and finished second another time. In the spring of 1999, he finished 32nd when his brakes gave out.

The past few weeks have seen a big turnaround for Earnhardt Jr. and the Budweiser team. After falling to as low as 26th in the Winston Cup points standings following a 31st-place finish at Bristol, Earnhardt Jr. has finished eighth at Texas, 11th at Martinsville, eighth at Talladega and third at California to climb into the Top 10 in points.

“We’ve got four good weeks in a row going,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You’ve got to be competitive every week. You can’t just come in with an attitude and expect that to produce good runs. But when you run well, it does a lot for the team. These guys go back home and they work on the next car for the next week even harder.

“The more good runs we can put under our belt that we’re proud of, the better we feel about our team and the less questions we have about our team and our future. If you go out and finish 34th and crash every week, you wonder what you need to do to fix it – whether it’s you or somebody else or what. We don’t have that right now and hopefully we can continue to build on it and be consistent.”

Consistency is something defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte and his team are desperately searching for right now. Labonte buried himself early in the Winston Cup standings, and prior to California, had a string of two straight top-eight finishes.

At California, however, he finished 22nd, and is now 15th in the standings, 383 points behind leader Dale Jarrett. He’s only 83 points behind Earnhardt Jr. for 10th, however.

Labonte said he feels Richmond is a place that owes him. He was running in the Top 5 in both the spring and the fall when misfortune befell him. An accident relegated him to 26th in the spring (his worst finish of the season), and a broken fitting on the power steering pump left him 15th in the fall event.

“We were good in both races here last year," said Labonte, whose career-best finish at Richmond was second in the fall of 1999. “We just couldn’t finish either of them off. It seems I have that sort of history at this place. We seem to have a great run going and either someone else has a problem and we get involved in it or we do something to plague ourselves.

“I guess that’s why they call it racing. With all of that being said though, I feel real good about coming to Richmond this weekend. We’ve got a new car coming out this weekend and maybe it will bring us some much needed luck.”

Johnny Benson, who’s running third in the points behind Gordon and Jarrett, had mixed results at Richmond a year ago. He limped to a 25th-place finish in the spring, but came on strong to earn his best-ever finish there in the fall, seventh. Benson has three career top-10 finishes at RIR.

“I like Richmond,” he said. “If somebody were going to build a new track I wish they would build it like Richmond. Most of us like tracks like Richmond because you can race hard, beat and bang just a little, not have to worry about staying in or keeping up with the draft. If you can get your car handling right and you have a good motor, you’re going to the front.

“The track changes so much during the race that if you could change springs and shocks about halfway through the race you might win every time. I know we don’t get any practice Saturday, but that shouldn’t be much of a factor. To me this schedule is just like our normal schedule. It may be different than what we’ve had in the past, but it isn't going to make a big difference to the driver.”

Jarrett, who leads Gordon by 66 points heading into Saturday’s race, is a former two-time winner at Richmond.

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