Earnhardt Jr looking to rebuild from tough outing

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   In Wednesday's practice session at Bristol, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who took the spotlight as he tries to rebuild from last week's disappointing run.
   It was an emotional start for the Dale Jr. to begin the season, as he won the biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500.
   "It was a real relief to go back there and win. There's a lot of drivers who come into the sport winning races and championships without ever winning that race," said Earnhardt Jr. "That race is so hard to win so you put so much emphasis into it, that it's almost detrimental to your chances."
   What is called the Super Bowl of stock car racing had eluded his dad, Dale Sr., for nearly his whole career, but in the start of his fifth season, Dale Jr. was able to claim the biggest event.
   "I'm glad to get that race out of the way -- it's somewhat of a burden in not winning it," said Junior. "It's an accomplishment I'm real proud of, and now we can go out and focus on winning a championship and some of the tracks where we haven't been so good at."
   After coming off a high at Daytona, which marked the tenth career victory, the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team headed to Rockingham, N.C., where it posted a solid top five finish.
   "We've got the restrictor plate pretty much figured out, and I'm not going to say we have it conquered, but we've got that side of the ball game pretty much covered," said car chief Tony Eury Jr. "We need to get our mile and a half stuff figured out, and all of us want to win here at Bristol."
   Dale Jr. had the points lead for the first time in his career, and it seemed like everything was going the young superstar's way.
   Last week at Las Vegas became was not a pretty sight for Earnhardt Jr. and the crew, though, as they had trouble.
   "We can't blame it on the car -- that's the same car we ran at Phoenix," said Eury Jr. "It's not the body and it's not the car. They've got this new tire and it kind of threw us a curve.
   "When we came off the truck we were struggling, and then Sunday we made some changes which we thought would make it better, but it made it worse."
   Dale Jr. elected to pull his machine off the track on four separate occasions, and eventually parking it for a 35th-place finish before the race had ended.
   "We've got a pretty big schedule ahead of us, so I told the guys not to look down -- everybody is going to have a day like that," said Junior. "You hope it's not you, but it's a good reality check for us, and we're going to move on."
   The finish toward the back dropped Dale Jr. from first to seventh in the series standings, but he doesn't seem to be too worried just yet.
   "We had a horrible time last week, but there's really nothing you can do about it," he said. "It's hard to say what was wrong. We just tried working on it all day long and tried to gain some points.
   "I'm not really disappointed with the points. It's so hard to stay out on top."
   Earnhardt Jr. says he's looking forward in coming back to Bristol, which is one of his the favorite tracks, even though victory lane has eluded him.
   "We always seemed to finish second like eight times in a row in the Busch Series here. There was always something going on at the end of the race," said Eury Jr. "This place is a lot like Charlotte and home, for there's so much excitement and so many people here that it's an exciting place to win."
   His best finishes at Bristol came in the 2002 season, when he wound up with a fourth place finish in the spring and third during the fall.
   "We haven't exactly got our Cup car handling good, so that's why we're testing here in trying to improve on a weak area," said Earnhardt Jr.
   This track was ever so kind to his father, who won at this facility nine times which is a tie for second with both Cale Yarborough and Rusty Wallace.
   Darrell Waltrip is the only other driver to have more success with a mark of 12 victories, but it was Earnhardt Sr. who seemed to give D.W. the most challenge back in the early and mid '80s.
   "It was just an excitement in the air, and I can remember coming here with Dale Sr. in the Busch car, for he had a ton of fans here," said Eury Jr. "I'm sure it's in the back of Junior's head, but he don't talk about it a whole lot.
   "We try to not get caught up on what his dad did, and just try to make our own deal. This is one of the three places we love to run at so winning here would mean a lot."
   Earnhardt Jr. will look to carry on the legacy of Sr. as he continues to improve with each year of competition during the Cup Series.
   "We've ran real well at some short tracks last year, and I ran better here than what I have in the past," said Earnhardt. "We were pretty decent in the Busch Series when we ran here. It seemed like every time we at least finished second."