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Caraviello: Confidence making the difference for Earnhardt

March 31, 2012, David Caraviello,

You can hear it in his voice, you can see it in his eyes, you can sense it in his demeanor. The confidence is there, as plain as the red No. 88 on the side of his race car. Yes, it's still relatively early in the season, and no, he still hasn't won in 134 races, a veritable eternity on the Sprint Cup tour. But there's plainly something different about Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, something that's reflected on the race track, and makes you think less about that long winless streak and more about the potential victories that lie ahead.

It's not something that can be added in a pit stop, not something that can be tweaked in a car adjustment. It takes a very long time to build, yet can erode like tires on an abrasive track surface. The great intangible in auto racing is confidence -- not necessarily a belief that everything is going to go right, but that all the pieces are in place to make it happen. And these days Earnhardt has it, thanks to dependably solid cars almost every week, thanks to strong runs that have him third in Sprint Cup points, thanks to a combination of factors that make the prospect of the No. 88 in Victory Lane sound not impossible, but inevitable.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s average finish at Martinsville since joining Hendrick Motorsports is 9.5, his second-best track based behind Las Vegas (9.2).


"I feel like I've got a lot of career left to right the ship."


The last time he felt like this was 2004, when he won a career-best six times, and finished fifth in final points driving the No. 8 car for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Since then he's seen the team his father created torn apart, hit rock bottom in a pair of disappointing seasons with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, weathered one long winless skid only to start another, and slowly built himself back up.

Now, it's all coming to a culmination. Crew chief Steve Letarte spent last season rebuilding the confidence of a driver whose struggles took a visible toll. The result was a seventh-place finish in points and a few near-misses at Charlotte and Martinsville. Now the cars are rolling in, and they're as good as anything Earnhardt has had under him in some time, and the combination of being in the right place mentally and mechanically has NASCAR's most popular driver in a position he hasn't occupied in a very long time -- a genuine threat to win almost any weekend.

"I feel good. I feel the best I've felt personally, confidence-wise, as I can remember in a long time," he told reporters earlier this week during a sponsor event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I just want it to keep going. In the big span of things, you're not here for a very long time. I feel like I've got a lot of career left to right the ship. I know how difficult it is to be competitive and compete in the series. I'm just appreciating it and hope it continues, and we can have a solid year and win some races."

Could Martinsville be the place? It's certainly possible, given that Earnhardt has recorded three consecutive top-seven finishes there, and his average result of 13.04 at the flat half-miler is fourth-best among active drivers behind those of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon. Although his most recent victory came at 2-mile Michigan and he's thought of mostly as a restrictor-plate specialist, Earnhardt did come up racing late models, and he's very comfortable on short tracks.

Of course, his first time at Martinsville he remembers running over just about everything, and the record books bear it out in a 26th-place finish. Gradually he improved, helped by one prolonged test session in which he found a setup that suited him. "That was the turnaround to become competitive there," Earnhardt said.

"We've had so many good runs there. That's one of my better tracks," he added. "I've always been really good at the short tracks and got good, solid finishes. I've been really consistent at those places. We've had great runs at Martinsville. A string in the mid-'00s, we were just really good. We've been able to kind of maintain that since I started driving for Rick [Hendrick] and getting good information, because they won a lot of races there. We've sort of combined our history, now working with Steve and all his success with Jeff at that track. Things should work well for us there, and they have. I was a little disappointed we ran seventh last time. We definitely feel we've got some areas to be improved this weekend."

And yet, the seventh-place finish in the fall wasn't his most notable disappointment in southwest Virginia last season. That came a year ago, when Earnhardt led 17 laps and was in position to win the race -- and surely ignite a momentous celebration in the grandstands -- until Kevin Harvick overtook him with only three circuits remaining. Looking back, there was only so much he could do.

"I don't know what I could have done, other than probably get myself wrecked blocking him, or wreck him and probably get wrecked by someone behind him," Earnhardt said. "I don't' think I could have done anything different [for] a better outcome for me. If I would have done anything different, the outcome likely would have been worse for me. He was super-fast, and no denying how quick they were at the end of that race. I'd have liked to have been as quick as he was. It just turned out on that run, his car came to life and he drove it good enough."

Of course, that didn't make the runner-up finish any easier to take, particularly on a day when Earnhardt's winless streak stretched within one week of the century mark. In the car, with the final laps running down and Harvick behind him, even he allowed himself to hope.

"When you take the lead with 20 laps to go, you feel like, 'Hey man, I might win this race. I hope this car runs this good the rest of the race.' Then it started to slip and slide a little bit," he said. "I started to realize it would be quite difficult to win the race. I was still leading at that point. It was a good experience even though we did lose, and that was really hard to deal with coming so close. I took a lot of positives away from it. I think that weekend helped us instead of hurting my resolve or taking me down a notch because we lost. It still helped us as a team and me as a driver."

And every little bit helps, particularly when we're talking about knocking off the decay of a difficult half-decade in which Earnhardt sunk to his lowest professional point while millions watched. Down deep, given what we've witnessed in the past season plus five races, is there any doubt that this is the same driver who was one of the steadiest and most successful on the circuit in the middle 2000s? As so many competitors have reminded us through the years, good drivers don't just forget how to drive. Maybe they wind up in situations that isn't a right fit, maybe they take over equipment that isn't up to par, or maybe they go through periods that make them doubt themselves.

Confidence is a fleeting thing, easy to lose and very difficult to regain. The absence of it can derail a career, an abundance of it can make the difference between one driver and another. Deep down, if the equipment is good and the situation is right, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is that same driver who enjoyed all those glory years with DEI. Since then, though, he's seemed to be missing one important ingredient, and everyone wondered what it was. Now we know.

"I don't really know how to measure confidence, but we feel pretty good about what's going on and what's happening to us and how the thing is going down," he told reporters Friday at Martinsville. "Some tracks you just don't hit it on, and we have a handful of those tracks. But we're starting to run more consistently up front at more race tracks. ... But the confidence is good, the confidence is up real high. There's still some things we want to improve on, but races can't come for our team fast enough. We're really enjoying being on the track and working."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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