NASCAR: Earnhardt not ready to say he’s back

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scripps Howard News
With six races in the books, NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers have had a chance to break in a new season. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks like a legitimate Chase contender.
The sportís most popular competitor is coming off a near miss at Martinsville Sunday with a second place finish, and now already has three Top 10s in 2011.
Donít forget he was in the mix to win the Daytona 500 until The Great American Race turned into a demolition derby at the end.
Heading to Texas the Hendrick Motorsports driver sits eighth in the standings with 199 points, just 20 behind leader Kyle Busch.
Still, while racing observers are almost ready to officially proclaim that Junior is ěback,î the driver himself is reserving judgment.
ěWell, I ainít really proved it to myself yet,î Earnhardt Jr. said Sunday. ěIíll let you know when I feel like Iím back, personally.î
Junior says he was dealing with an ornery car all day, one that certainly wasnít going to drive itself to victory lane.
ěWe really were not a Top-5 car,î he said. ěWe worked really hard to stay inside the top-10 all day.î
However, crew chief Steve Letarte and the 88 team kept tweaking the Impala and put Earnhardt Jr. in a position to win.
ěWe were doing some things that were kind of hurting our performance, our ability to perform in traffic and we did a lot of things in the short run and just freed the car up and it really ran great,î Earnhardt Jr. said.
If the 2011 campaign does prove to be the one that sees Driver 88 rejoin the Cup elite, much of the credit should go to Letarte. A full-time employee of Hendrick Motorsports since he was 16, the 31-year-old served as Gordonís crew chief beginning in late 2005 and took the same post with Junior prior to the start of the 2011 season.
ěAll of the credit really goes to Steve for the finish we had (Sunday) and the team for really kind of plugging away and making the adjustments, even though some might not have worked as good as others,î Earnhardt Jr. said. ěWe still needed to make some effort, put some effort into making the car better and those guys kept going all day long.
ěSteve is a good crew chief and heís going to give me more opportunities like this I feel.î