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Earnhardt Jr. pining for special sequel

June 14, 2013, Pat DeCola,

Junior brimming with confidence at Michigan; other drivers take notice

Related: Qualifying results | Full coverage from Michigan | Weekend schedule

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The newest installment in the Superman series to make it to the silver screen, “Man of Steel” has endured some mixed reviews heading into its opening weekend, hovering around 60% out of a 100 rating from well-known movie review site

As for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet, which has a paint scheme inspired by the Last Son of Krypton himself, there’s been nothing but favorable returns from some of the toughest critics in NASCAR -- his teammates.

“I thought Junior had a very impressive run last week,” Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said. “He was very competitive and it was great timing for them because (Michigan International Speedway) is a track that I know he likes and does well at; he did well last year. So, if this is a window of opportunity for him, it’s opening.”


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“He could win here again,” added Kasey Kahne, another teammate. “He was really good here last year and they’re always right there and consistently in the top 10.”

Earnhardt Jr. was one of the fastest drivers in Friday’s opening practice session, his National Guard “Man of Steel” Chevrolet clocking in fifth at 199.922 mph to Kahne’s chart-leading 200.619.  He was a little faster in qualifying at 200.100 mph, but ended up placing 12th. Earnhardt shouldn’t take his marginal qualifying position to heart, considering that in his last two races here he finished fourth and first, starting 22nd and 17th, respectively.

“Hopefully (the car is) as fast as it looks good. That is going to be more important to be able to repeat and get the win this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “We feel pretty good coming in to this race.”

The annual expectation ahead of each of the two Michigan races is that Earnhardt will run well at the track, as his average finish of 10.5 at the track in the past eight races ranks among his best. Not many could have predicted that he’d be riding a wave of momentum from the week before, however, following a third-place finish at Pocono.

The fact that Earnhardt now sits in fourth place in the Sprint Cup standings is impressive. After all, he had not a single top-five finish in all of April and May following three in the first five races.

“We had a great run last week that sort of hopefully got us back in the right direction,” Earnhardt said. “We started the season off so promising, the best that I had ever started a season. It just seemed like things were going so perfectly and it’s the way it is in this sport. You will think you have everything going in the right direction and then odds and fate and everything else got in the way.”

While Earnhardt is currently in no danger of missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a win at Michigan is almost a necessity to ensure he stays near the top of the standings. He and third-place Clint Bowyer are the only two drivers in the top eight without a win. Meanwhile, some of Bowyer’s best tracks -- Sonoma and New Hampshire, two tracks where Earnhardt struggles -- are on the horizon.

“We feel like we are coming through a stretch of races and race tracks, if you take out Sonoma, that we should run pretty well at and have a lot of confidence at,” said Earnhardt. “Not that we won’t go to Sonoma and hope to run well, we will, but the track record (13 starts, no top-10 finishes) speaks for itself there.”

Perhaps there’s a little extra jolt that comes along with racing at one of his favorite tracks, but Earnhardt appears rejuvenated and ready to make a summer run as he tries to secure his first Sprint Cup championship. Now 38 years old, he isn’t surprised that there is concern over his age and his motivation after 15 years of Cup racing, but he’s as determined as ever.

“I feel like I have good energy. I’m not burning out,” said Earnhardt. “I think that the passion and the commitment probably goes before the physical end of it goes in this particular sport. I feel like I’m in the best opportunity of my career. There is a ‘seize the moment’ kind of feeling because I’m in such good equipment around such good people.

“We want to win more races. We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season. We want that to be the status quo. We want that to be the norm.”


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