Published March 06, 2010
HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is doing his best to forget 2009.
Not a bad way to start.
Junior will be on the pole for the first time in nearly two years on Sunday for NASCAR's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, giving the popular, second-generation driver another reason to believe that he's left behind the most dismal season of his career.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction," he said.
Then again, Earnhardt has more in mind than just starting races out front.
He wants to be there at the end, too.
"We are starving for a good finish," said Earnhardt, who's gone 60 races since his last Cup win on June 15, 2008, at Michigan. "That is really all we can think about."
Earnhardt's confidence was devastated during a winless 2009. His crew chief was fired midway through the season in hopes of turning things around, but nothing worked. Junior cracked the top five only twice and led a mere 146 laps in 36 races.
It wasn't like he was with a mediocre team, either. Earnhardt's three Hendrick Motorsports teammates — Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon — went 1-2-3 in the season standings. Junior didn't even make the Chase for the Championship and wound up 25th overall.
"We just got beat down last year," Earnhardt said.
During the offseason, car owner Rick Hendrick called on his considerable resources to turn things around with for No. 88 team. Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, was persuaded to let go of two crew members, including his lead race engineer. He also was steered toward a partnership with Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew, the sort of relationship that has made Johnson and Gordon such a dynamic pairing.
"We've seen race teams completely change their identity in offseasons before," Earnhardt said. "I hope that's what we've been able to do."
Earnhardt's redemption season got off to a promising start: a hard-charging second-place finish at Daytona, where he's had some of his greatest successes and was dealt his most devastating loss — the 2001 death of his father in a last-turn crash.
Earnhardt knew a strong run at NASCAR's most famous track wasn't necessarily an indication that he'd be a contender anywhere else, though. It's about doing it week after week.
"We're not the total package," Earnhardt conceded. "We haven't cured everything, obviously."
He was doomed by a broken axle at California, finishing 12 laps behind. He qualified fourth at Las Vegas last week and was in contention for a top-10 finish, though he dropped to 16th.
Now, he's on the pole for the Kobalt Tools 500 — the first time he'll lead the field into a race since April 2008 at Texas.
Earnhardt's blistering lap of 192.761 mph was the fastest pole speed since 2007, before the boxier Car of Tomorrow made its full-time Cup debut. In fact, nearly everyone went faster than the pole-winning speed for the spring race at Atlanta a year ago.
"It's actually crazy how fast it is," said Juan Pablo Montoya, who'll start inside the second row.
The speeds won't be as quick on race day, but Earnhardt showed in the final practice Saturday that his qualifying effort was no fluke. He put up the second-fastest lap (185.517), only a thousandth of a second behind Martin on the 1.54-mile trioval.
"It builds a lot of confidence," Earnhardt said. "It's just a matter of time. If we keep performing like this, it should leak over to our performance on Sunday and we can get to where we want to be as a race team."
Where he wants to be is where Johnson already is. The winner of an unprecedented four straight Cup championships shows no signs of letting up in his quest for five, rolling into Atlanta off back-to-back victories.
"To have so many people working in the right direction and have their career paths peaking at the same point collectively as a group is pretty cool," Johnson said. "It doesn't happen often in sports."
He is one away from his 50th career win. If it comes in his 295th start, Johnson will be the fourth-fastest to achieve that feat, trailing only Gordon, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip.
"I definitely never dreamed of being in this position," he said. "To be here and living this is pretty damn cool, and weird, and amazing. I'm very proud of what I've done as a driver and very proud of what we've done as a team and how we've worked together over the years."
Johnson is not satisfied, either.
"I feel we have a lot more to prove and a lot more that we can still do as a race team," the 34-year-old said. "We are fairly young as a whole, I would say coming into the middle part of our careers. I think there is a lot of racing left in all of us."
NASCAR is surely pulling for someone to step up as a potential challenger. TV ratings are down, empty seats are becoming more and more the norm. The struggling economy has surely had an impact, but Johnson's extended dominance isn't making it any easier to sell the once-hip sport.
Earnhardt getting back into the mix would undoubtedly boost interest.
That said, there's no denying Johnson's greatness.
"There's probably a belief that the garage area has this animosity or negative energy about the 48 (Johnson's car) and Hendrick Motorsports in general," Jeff Burton said. "I just don't have that.
"I want it to be me and, don't get me wrong, I'm not cheering for them. But I also respect a great deal of what they've done. It's unbelievable what they've been able to do at a time where it's the most competitive that it's ever been."
(This version CORRECTS SUBS 7th graf to correct Earnhardt winless streak to 60 races sted 70.)