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Menzer: Earnhardt looking for bright side of second place

April 03, 2011, Joe Menzer,

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- So close to ending winless streak, Junior struggles to focus on the positives

Even Kevin Harvick was aware of Junior Fever swirling Sunday in the exhaust-choked air at Martinsville Speedway, and Harvick was cooped up inside his race car.

As he came barreling toward the car being driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his No. 29 Chevrolet during the closing laps of the Goody's Fast Relief 500, Harvick said he sensed the crowd on its feet. He didn't sense that they were pulling for him to pass Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevy for the lead.

"There is definitely a brighter side to what's going on, too, and I won't forget to notice that."


"I could see the people just going crazy coming off of Turn 2 when he took the lead from Kyle [Busch] -- and as I was catching him, I'm like, 'Man, I'm gonna be the bad guy here. But I gotta do what I gotta do,'" Harvick said.

So he passed Earnhardt, much more easily than the way Earnhardt had whipped the crowd into a frenzy only 17 laps earlier by nudging Busch out of the way for the lead on Lap 480 of the 500-lap race.

And in that instant, arguably Earnhardt's best chance at a win in his past 99 Sprint Cup races evaporated in the wake of the No. 29 car's fumes. But for 16 glorious laps, from Lap 480 until Harvick seized the lead for good with three to go, Junior Nation stood poised to celebrate Earnhardt's first victory since June of 2008 at Michigan.

Inside the car, Earnhardt simply was trying to hold on -- knowing deep down that Harvick's car was faster and that Harvick had the time and skill to run him down.

"I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win the damn race ... I knew the 29 was fast. We all watched him come up through the pack there," Earnhardt said. "So I knew he had the speed. But he did have a car in front of him [in Busch, for a while] and I was trying to make it difficult for him to get by."

The silver lining

In the end, he didn't have enough car to hold off Harvick. But new crew chief Steve Letarte was determined as soon as Earnhardt climbed out of the car afterward not to let his driver dwell on this as one that had slipped away. He wanted Earnhardt to focus instead on the bigger, brighter picture.

"He did a great job all day long. He kept the brakes on it, kept the tires on it, kept the fenders on it, and gave us a shot to win at the end. That was great," Letarte said.

"The most important thing is when you're that close, you know you can win races. And that's the whole idea. We need to know we're that good. This is one of his better tracks and [Sunday] we were good. We weren't quite good enough, but we were good -- and it feels good to be that way."

In finishing second, Earnhardt jumped four spots in the point standings to eighth. He trails points leader Kyle Busch by 20 and appears to be gathering momentum as he heads into another track he likes in Texas Motor Speedway next weekend. He has finished in the top 10 in half of his six starts this season, giving this season a totally different feel than Earnhardt's team had most of last season -- despite finishing second in the 2010 Daytona 500.

"I'm just happy we're getting results for the hard work," said Letarte, who replaced Lance McGrew as team owner Rick Hendrick shuffled around the crew chiefs on three of his four Sprint Cup teams last offseason. "The engineers are working tremendously. I've asked the shop to jump through hoops to build new cars. This is a brand-new race car here; that was a brand-new car last week [at Auto Club Speedway in California, where Earnhardt finished 12th]. We'll have another brand-new car in a couple of weeks.

"This right here is a group very committed to running well -- and that group starts at that basic guy sweeping floors in the shop and goes all the way up to the driver and the owner. I'm just glad the driver is seeing results for his extra effort."

Bottom line

Earnhardt often seems to see the negative in something before he can mine out the positive, but Letarte, the ultimate cheerleader, seems to be working on changing that attitude all the time. And it appears to be having the desired effect.

But man, sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's really, really hard.

"I felt like for the most part of the day, I didn't run up to my standard," Earnhardt said. "I feel like my standard here is a third- through fifth-place run. We all know Denny [Hamlin] and the 48 [of Jimmie Johnson] have been winning all the races here recently. But I feel like I'm right there behind them in how we performed here over the last 10 years."

So in the end, Earnhardt said, he was "happy we were able to steal a few spots at the end of the race." He tried to focus on the positives of finishing second -- his highest finish since that aforementioned second-place effort in the 2010 Daytona 500 -- rather than the fact that he came within three circuits of the .526-mile paper clip of Martinsville of finally getting back to Victory Lane.

Asked what it was going to take to prove to his critics that he's back to the form that enabled him to win a total of 18 Cup races between 2000 and 2008, the bearded Earnhardt grimaced and replied: "Well, I ain't really proved it to myself yet. I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally."

But then his mixed emotions spilled over and he added: "Honestly, the way I feel is I feel fortunate to finish second in a race where we should have finished 10th or ninth or eighth. ... I'm really thrilled. I know it don't look like it, but I know I've got such a hell of an opportunity here. This is such a great group to be around, and I'm having fun with it.

"I'm racing cars. It's all I've ever wanted to do. I want to run like this. I want to finish like this or even run a little better than this every weekend, and we are right on the outside of that. It was frustrating to be that close [to winning]. It was frustrating to be leading the race inside 10 laps to go and be passed.

"But there is definitely a brighter side to what's going on, too, and I won't forget to notice that."

To be sure, neither will his many fans.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.