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Earnhardt enthused about rest of Speedweeks

February 20, 2012, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a great run going in the Shooout but it all came to a crashing end on Lap 55. (Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Strong runs in Shootout, qualifying has '04 500 winner ready to compete on track

These days, the biggest thing going on with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s position in the Sprint Cup Series is he appreciates crew chief Steve Letarte and his men's hard work. Especially since that's placed their No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet near the front of the field.

That was never more evident than after Sunday's qualifying run for the Daytona 500, when Earnhardt failed to defend his 2011 pole or sit on the front row for the third consecutive year. But he did end up third and thus, will start on the front row for Thursday's first Gatorade Duel qualifying race.

"I felt like I was doing a good job [Saturday night], I had control of my race and had potential to win the race if I made all the right moves -- that is all I can ask for."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"We were kind of struggling to run with [Jeff Gordon, Saturday] and we all pretty much had the same engine," Earnhardt said of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who qualified sixth. "We probably got a little better wind and we made some changes in our car, as well, trying to find more speed.

"I've got to thank my crew for working as hard as they could, not being complacent and taking whatever they could get. They really went after it and I had a shot at the pole."

On an equal level -- and probably an even more important one here at Daytona International Speedway considering how a proverbial puff of wind or slip of the steering wheel can wipe out multiple cars -- Earnhardt accepts the hand he and his 48 competitors trying to establish their positions for Sunday's Daytona 500 have been dealt.

Surprisingly enough, considering his car was a potential Budweiser Shootout winner last Saturday night before someone else's miscue -- "something that happened that should not have happened," Earnhardt said -- destroyed it, Earnhardt's enjoying the current state of superspeedway racing, which he called a throwback.

"I like it better [but] it can get even better than this [and] we still need to keep trying to make it even better," Earnhardt said. "It was fun to be able to be offensive and go up there and try to take the lead. I think the fans really enjoyed all the lead changes we were able to have and everybody out there being able to work on their own deal -- not really having to have a partner all the time to make something happen.

"The closing rate is a little fast. Guys will go flying backwards and forwards. I think we have really made a lot of great improvements and I have more of my destiny in my hands in this type of racing."

That's an interesting statement considering his disgust at what happened to him Saturday night. On Sunday he said he didn't feel the need to prepare himself for any emotional letdown getting wrecked as an innocent bystander might cause.

"That's the way it's always been," Earnhardt said. "I didn't feel like we had much control over our own destinies with the package we had last year or the year before. And ever since I've been racing in restrictor-plate racing, you never know when you're going to punch your ticket and be part of the wreck.

"You never know when it's going to be your turn and that's always been the way it is, so you kind of got used to that, over time. With what we saw the other night, the cars don't really handle, so everybody's really brave and that makes for a lot of accidents and really exciting racing."

Video: Earnhardt in the wrong place in Budweiser Shootout

Earnhardt mastered the art of plate racing enough to win seven races between July 2001 and October 2004, including five-of-six in one stretch at Talladega and the 2004 Daytona 500. It definitely puts him in a position to opine on style -- particularly when it created as much destruction as witnessed Saturday night.

"You don't have to move around -- you just hold your damn car where it needs to be and not drive around like an idiot," Earnhardt said of Saturday night's juking and jiving that created three multi-car wrecks and wiped out half the starting field. "If you want to drive your car in a straight line and be sensible it is possible [not to wreck].

"There is no chaos out there. Yes, there are guys moving around, but it's not necessary. They are not doing it because they are hot or there are problems with their engine running hot or anything like that. They are just having a good time. Everybody is enjoying it."

Other than the fans whose favorites' cars were lying, wasted, in the garage that might be a fair assessment of fandom's take on the current style of racing. Earnhardt's locked rock-solid on how he feels about it, based on how his 54 laps in the Shootout went.

"I felt like I was doing a good job [Saturday night], I had control of my race and had potential to win the race if I made all the right moves -- that is all I can ask for," Earnhardt said. "I like this kind of racing better. At least I know what to expect. I feel like I have a better chance with this style than I did last year for damn sure."

And that includes his next race Thursday. As wild as the Shootout's action was and as much as is at stake this weekend, Earnhardt didn't predict any let-off Thursday given the confidence his starting spot gives him.

"Starting on that front row gives you that kind of feeling," Earnhardt said. "[Starting] third on back, you feel like you need to race because somebody's going to try to take your third starting spot in the 500 if that is where we were to end up. Somebody's out there to take it from you in those qualifying races so you have to run hard.

"We're just going to try to go hard because we've got great race cars and we've tried to take care of them and be careful and that's not worked, so we're going to go back to racing. Rick [Hendrick} said he's paid a lot of money to see us up front -- not running around in the back [laughing]."

And for better or worse Earnhardt, whose primary 2011 Daytona 500 car was wrecked less than 20 minutes into Wednesday's practice, forecasts the same as what everyone saw last Saturday, this Sunday in the Great American Race.

"A lot of the same [though] maybe being 500 miles guys might use a little better judgment -- but I wouldn't count on it," Earnhardt said. "It is a heavy duty race, a pretty big deal to win and it's going to be a lot of guys pretty excited about their prospects of winning it. Still, pretty much any car can win. The lottery's still there for the whole field [so] we will just see how it works out."