Strong Start Boosts Earnhardt Jr.
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on March 20, 2011 | 10:42 A.M. EST
“My expectations are the same, but it’s just early in the season." (Photo: Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes to one of his favorite tracks on the schedule, in Bristol Motor Speedway, looking to keep his early season string of success alive.
With two straight top-10 finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas in the first three races of the season, Earnhardt is enjoying one of the best beginnings in his Sprint Cup career.
But although his confidence is high, Earnhardt isn’t letting things get too far out of hand on the expectation level and understands there is still a long season ahead.
“My expectations are the same, but it’s just early in the season,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got a long, long way to go and a lot of tracks to go race at and a lot of different setups to be working on and ideas to come and go. It’s just a long, long season.”
Earnhardt’s Phoenix and Vegas finishes came after dealing with a variety of challenges including poor qualifying efforts, cut tires and pit road miscues. Those bounce back performances have helped instill confidence in Earnhardt who say the hard work the No. 88 team put in furing the off season has already paid benefits.
“I feel that we’ve made some steps that have helped us,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We’ve got a long ways to go, though. We’ve got to temper our expectations and just try to maintain our focus on what that job is that day, that moment, and just do what we need to do and do it as good as we can.”
The biggest off-season change was the alignment of new crew chief Steve Letarte with Earnhardt. The relationship has already blossomed but again Earnhardt is aware of the ups and downs of the long season ahead.
“The challenge is me and him maintaining our positive attitude, maintaining the communication and the consistency of how it’s working right now,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That is going to be the part that is the hardest, that will determine whether we will succeed or not is whether we can keep that going over an entire season.”
In the short term Earnhardt likes his chances at Bristol where he’s won before in the Sprint Cup Series and considers one of his favorite tracks on the schedule. And should trouble arise during Sunday’s 500-laps around the .533-mile track, Earnhardt is comfortable that Letarte will be able to help the team deal with adversity.
“When you get yourself in a hole or the car isn’t quite going like you want it to go or the car is not responding like you think it should, he gives you the impression that you’re going to fix it before the end of the day,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
“As long as he doesn’t fool me too many times, he does a great job of keeping you in the game, that you’re part of the puzzle and everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction.”