DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Even when Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running at the top of the chart, he still feels the pressure.
After he pulled the No. 88 Chevrolet onto pit road following his qualifying run for the Daytona 500, the media throng closed in.
But this time Junior was the center of attention for posting the fastest lap (190.913mph) of the five cars that preceded him. And although the provisional pole didn't last long - he finished second behind teammate Mark Martin as he predicted - it was a welcome change to have Earnhardt reveling from his on track performance - he topped the speed chart during practice on Friday and posted solid results in time trials on Saturday.
"The car was good yesterday," Earnhardt said. "We got a little different wind situation, that's picked all the times up. We put down a pretty good lap. It was hitting the ground a little bit yesterday and that was slowing it down some. We were hoping to get that fixed. We run so much faster, we got such a good tail wind down that back straightaway but we didn't do it enough because we were still hitting the ground in (Turns) 3 and 4 and slowed it down some."
Despite the limited practice before qualifying, Earnhardt said they learned a lot that will transfer to the Budweiser Shootout and in next week's qualifying race. Since the track was flooded last year, Earnhardt says the surface has changed and bumps have risen where the asphalt had been smoother in the past.
"We're just kind of finding some of them as we go," Earnhardt said. "But the car is real, real fast. I'm just glad the guys did such a good job of putting it together and the engine is really amazing. So, it's fun to drive cars like that. It boosts your confidence"
It's been a while since he described a car as "fun to drive." Earnhardt admits having a fast piece underneath him was "a boost of confidence" and made him "feel good as a team".
Certainly, that wasn't always a feeling that radiated from the No. 88 squad last year - particularly following the miscues Earnhardt experienced during 2009 Speedweeks and the engine failure that afflicted the car the next week at California. The team spiraled from there.
However, the sentiment has changed on the No. 88 team since Lance McGrew took over last June. The last of Tony Eury Jr.'s men were reassigned in the offseason and the squad received engineering reinforcements from the No. 5 team as the two programs bonded together. Now both Earnhardt and the No. 88 squad enter 2010 with a fresh start.
"Mark (Martin) has been a great supporter of mine for years. He's a lot of fun to work with," Earnhardt said. "Definitely he's one of the guys I definitely listen to. Obviously Jimmie and Chad had a lot of success, so I look at their setup a lot. If I have questions about what they're doing, trying, I talk to Chad quite a bit."
"So that's one of the greatest things about being in this company is being able to look right over on somebody's desk and see what they're putting down for answers. I enjoy that part about it quite a bit."
Earnhardt still misses having his cousin in house, but has accepted the talents McGrew brings to the team.
"Lance is doing a great job with everything that is in his hands and everything that is his responsibility," Earnhardt said. "He's done really good. I admit that I'm reassured every time I'm around him that he's got everything under control.
"It took a while for us to get that kind of a trust, but I feel real confident. He's never done anything that I thought was strange or he's never left me hanging. I got a lot of pressure on me and I like to have guys that want to get in there and dig and help you with the pressure. And he does that. He understands how difficult the pressure can be sometimes. He does a lot of things that makes you feel like you're OK, like you're going to be able to handle it. He's got a lot of responsibilities and hats he has to where and he does a good job with all of them right now."