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Junior Nation has reason to revel

August 20th, 2014 11:05 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Junior Nation has reason to revel

It’s already been the best season in a decade for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His fans hope the final third of the season can produce his greatest season ever with a championship.

With three wins and 16 top-10 finishes in 23 races, the sport’s 11-time most popular driver knows it’s definitely a possibility this season. Still, he doesn’t want to make any bold predictions at this point, staying focused on one race at a time. Next up is Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“You just don’t want to start thinking too far ahead,” said the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet after sweeping races at Pocono. “We’ve got the tracks, the cars and the job we do that is so technical, you’ve really got to approach it one day at a time to be able to do it right and do it well.”

He is currently second to teammate Jeff Gordon in the point standings, although they would be tied for first place if the 10-race “Chase for the Sprint Cup” playoffs started today. Earnhardt believes his No. 88 team has the ability to finish strong, especially with it the final season of crew chief Steve Letarte on top of the pit box before he leaves to become an analyst for NBC Sports.

“We typically finish well, finish strong, so I anticipate we will continue that when the Chase comes around,” Earnhardt said. “I think the cars we need will be there and the engineers will have their jobs done. And week in and week out, Steve will have the information he needs to be able to call the races.”

As you can tell, Earnhardt has the utmost confidence in Letarte and their chemistry has been well documented. They’ve made the Chase all four years since Letarte became Earnhardt’s crew chief in 2010. Earnhardt finished fifth in the points last season, his best finish since 2006, and he started off this season with a second Daytona 500 victory.

Now he looks for a second win at Bristol, which came in his best career year of 2004, when Earnhardt scored six wins and finished third in the point standings.

However, he feels a big improvement since then is his maturity as a driver, especially when things aren’t going well.

“When you’re in the car and it’s not working, you just carry a lot of frustration,” he said. “You just bite your tongue, bite your tongue, trying not to be a fool on the radio. Everybody in the pits and on the box is trying to help you and they’re the only ones you can complain to, so you really have to choose your words. It’s something I’ve learned over the years. Before I’ve done it where you beat on those guys and they don’t want to help you anymore.”

He also thanks car owner Rick Hendrick for sticking with him through the tough times and believing in him. He went nearly four years without winning a race from 2008-12, before snapping a 143-race winless Michigan

At the time, many questioned how long Hendrick would keep Earnhardt, although the driver never felt truly in jeopardy. 

“There was never a day where I thought he was going to fire me, but he had every right,” Earnhardt said. “We just weren’t running good. It’s funny how short the memory is in this garage because things were bad. I knew I was in a precarious situation.

“But I’m glad he saw it through. He’s that kind of guy. I’ve seen him help other people, other employees to get where they want to go potential-wise. When he believes in somebody, he sees something special and he usually is right and they end up accomplishing their goals.”

It’s the hope of Junior Nation their driver accomplishes those goals this season.

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