Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks that his Hendrick Motorsports team has constantly improved and may be on the verge of winning races and maybe a title.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. – It is the start of another NASCAR Sprint Cup season and, inevitably, a familiar question is asked yet again:
Is this the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally wins the first championship of his career?
You may well be tired of this sort of thing, but the fact remains that the legion of Earnhardt Jr. fans – he’s been voted the most popular driver 10 times in a row – have expected great things from him ever since he first joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
Earnhardt Jr. ended his often-acrimonious relationship with Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of 2007. The reports were he wanted to exercise more control over the team, led by his stepmother Teresa.
In a much bally-hooed press conference, Earnhardt Jr. declared that Hendrick was a team with which “I can win races and championships.”
As for victories, Earnhardt Jr. has earned only two in five seasons. He finally made the Chase in 2011 and wound up seventh in points – his best showing with Hendrick.
Hopes rose last year when Earnhardt Jr. planted himself firmly among the top 10 in the point standings and held his ground.
However, he missed the Chase races at Charlotte and Kansas because of the effects of two concussions, one from a hard crash during a test session Aug. 29 at Kansas Speedway, the other during a multicar crash on Oct. 7 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt Jr. did the right thing. By sitting out two races he took no chances with his health. He returned to racing only after doctors cleared him.
But the loss of two races obliterated his chances to win a championship and he finished 12TH в точках.
It’s only natural that many of his fans have wondered what could have been in 2012
Earnhardt Jr. might have been a factor in the championship battle in 2012 has he not been forced to miss two Chase races because of a concussion.
Earnhardt Jr. Calls Himself - Lucky, Ready For 2013 Challenges-dale2-300x221-jpgEarnhardt Jr. Calls Himself - Lucky, Ready For 2013 Challenges-dale1-201x300-jpg
And they now ask: Can Earnhardt Jr. maintain, or improve, his performance in 2013?
“I think we were in the conversation last year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We were really excited about how consistent we were last year.
“We’ve been able to improve as we’ve worked together. Me and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) have been able to improve steadily over the last couple years. I hope that’s able to continue.
“I hope we haven’t realized our true potential. Maybe this year, if we can step it up another notch, we’d be right there where we’ve been striving to be the last couple years.
“It isn’t going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams. We were pretty close last year and feel pretty good about that.”
Earnhardt Jr. can jump-start his 2013 season with a good run in the Daytona 500 – and it must be noted that, historically, he has been strong on the restrictor-plate tracks.
He suffered something of a setback on Feb. 20 when the engine in his Chevrolet failed during practice for the Budweiser Duels.
The powerplant was replaced and Earnhardt returned to the track for two additional practices.
However, the change meant he had to start his 150-lap race from the rear of the field. He would have started sixth.
“We’ll be fine,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve got no worries about our engines and we’ll just come from the back to the front as quickly as we can.”
As are all other competitors, Earnhardt Jr. will compete in the new “Generation 6” car for the first time. While he’s had a little experience with the car, he admits there are still questions.
“I really don’t know how the car is going to race and draft, what kind of strategy we’ll need to be using or think about using,” he said. “That sort of changes and turns, does different stuff throughout the week. It changes as the week goes.
“We’ll see. We’ll have to get a couple races under our belt. Everybody’s got to learn the car, figure out what makes it go fast. Hopefully, we can do that before anybody else.”
In reality, the slate has been wiped clean for Earnhardt Jr. He has overcome his injuries – and declares that he fully supports mandatory concussion testing in NASCAR (planned for 2014) – and has high hopes he can achieve the goals that have eluded him.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what a team needs,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “No matter how close it is or far off it is, it’s hard to really put your finger on exactly what you’re missing, especially when you work with a company like I do that’s got all the parts, pieces, all the personnel, does such a good job delivering the physical race car to you.
“It really comes down to the minds that are in control of everything, me and Steve making the right calls and decisions on the race track.”
Indeed, Earnhardt Jr. was pretty close last year and lost ground only because of unforeseen incidents.
That, however, was then. This is now.
“The reality of the situation, there ain’t much I can do about what happened last year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m just glad, really, that I got an opportunity to come back, that I was able to overcome the setback physically and there’s a bit of relief and excitement that I feel good and ready to race and I’m able to pick back up, I guess, where we left off.
“You just never know when you’re in that situation sitting at home wondering if everything is going to get right again.
“So I feel lucky. How we do really comes down to the minds that are in control of everything – Steve and me.
“Yup, I’m ready.”

BUDWEISER DUEL: Earnhardt Jr. did indeed move from the rear to the front in the first 150-mile duel, but he didn’t quite get all the way there.
However, he did finish ninth, comfortably within the “transfer” range –15TH or better – to make the Daytona 500.
Kevin Harvick, who also won the Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 16, won the rousing race, which featured plenty of drafting that had been absent from previous events. It was Harvick’s first victory in a duel event.
A multicar crash was triggered with just eight laps to go when Denny Hamlin’s Toyota broke loose in the second turn and gathered up the cars of Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith.
Greg Biffle finished second followed by a charging Juan Pablo Montoya. Jimmie Johnson was fourth and Kurt Busch fifth.
Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick encountered handling problems and finished 17TH – undamaged, by the way, which means she will keep her front-row starting position.
Jeff Gordon dominated the second Duel until, with 20 laps remaining, he was nabbed by NASCAR for entering pit road to fast in a green-flag stop.
Gordon, who is in the Daytona 500 by virtue of qualifying second, returned to the race in 16TH place and wound up 12TH.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch inherited the lead and earned the victory in by a razor-thin margin over Kasey Kahne. The win was Busch’s second in a 150-miler.
Austin Dillon was third, Clint Bowyer fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.
Unlike the first race, a caution flag was not thrown. The only incident happened with 20 laps to go when, as several cars pitted, Ryan Newman spun on the frontstretch.
The race remained under the green flag and thus had an average speed of 193.95 mph, the second fastest Duel ever.
Mike Bliss and Brian Keselowski failed to make the Daytona 500.

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