Earnhardt in solid shape to make Chase

Published 10:49 pm Thursday, July 6, 2006

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t come close to challenging Tony Stewart for this past weekend’s win in Daytona.

In years past, that failure would have put Junior and his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team in a panic. But those days of fretting over restrictor-plate wins and losses are long gone now.

Junior now is focused on a much bigger picture: Winning his first Nextel Cup title.

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“We’re ready to run for a title,” he said. “We’re a hell of a team compared to last year, maybe better than ’04.”

Die-hard Earnhardt fans know that 2004 was the last time Junior was a legitimate championship contender. He won six races that season, briefly led the points midway through the Chase for the championship, and finished fifth in the final standings.

He then fell to the back of the Nextel Cup standings last year in a season-long struggle that saw him win only one race, fail to make the Chase and finish an embarrassing 19th in the points.

Now he heads into this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway — site of that lone win last season — on a turnaround. In the past three races, Junior has climbed from sixth to a season-high third in the standings and is a solid bet to make the Chase.

“I feel good about where we’re at,” he said. “We still need to get better. We obviously couldn’t hang with Tony and the guys up front Saturday night at Daytona. But we got out of there with little harm done, and even climbed a spot or two in the points.”

That mentality means the team no longer wastes time fretting over why it didn’t run away with the win at Daytona. DEI spent four years dominating Daytona and Talladega — Earnhardt has seven of his 17 Cup victories on those two tracks — and when the results tapered off, everyone wanted to know why.

With a change of focus came the ability to set aside Saturday night’s 13th-place finish. Any disappointment from that is overshadowed by his third-place finish three weeks ago in Michigan, a place Earnhardt routinely has struggled.

In finally putting together a strong run there, Earnhardt knew DEI was headed in the right direction.

“It was a very, very great feeling to really see there were some things being done, because you sit there and wonder when we were going to start doing the things we needed to do. When we were going to take these complaints seriously?” he said. “We are now addressing these complaints from the drivers and the (DEI) teams and the crew chiefs, and we’ve made some gains.

“We’re just trying to get it right so we’ll be good in the Chase. We’ll deal with the plate stuff whenever we’ve got the rest of the ballgame intact.”

But Earnhardt hasn’t totally dismissed the plate races.