Earnhardt tempers strong start with caution

The Associated Press
Friday, March 18, 2011; 3:28 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- When Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to qualify for last year's championship race, he spent the final three months of the season out of the spotlight.

The focus was no longer on the struggles of NASCAR's most popular driver, shifting instead to the title contenders. Earnhardt liked being under the radar, without having every underwhelming run dissected.

He doesn't have that luxury anymore.

A decent start to the season has Earnhardt ranked 10th in the Sprint Cup standings for the first time since early last season. It's created a buzz around Earnhardt from a rabid fan base eager to see its driver snap his 96-race winless streak.

But Earnhardt isn't getting too far ahead of himself and urged everyone to be patient.

"I think we've just got to temper our excitement over what we've seen so far," he said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "You've got to temper your mood a little bit and just keep working hard, keep staying focused, realizing how much further in the season we got to go."

Earnhardt has been down this road before, most recently 2008 in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Although he won only one race, he ran well most of the season and hovered inside the top-five in points all the way up to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Then he faded fast and has been mired in a slump ever since. Earnhardt failed to make the Chase the last two seasons, finished inside the top-five just five times and couldn't get close to Victory Lane.

Those struggles played in a role in team owner Rick Hendrick's offseason organizational changes, which led to crew chief changes on three of his four teams. Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte, who had spent the last several seasons with four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

Through three races this season, the pairing seems to be perfect.

"I think Stevie pulls things out of Dale that are valuable to making them go faster," Gordon said, "and I think Dale adds something to Stevie to keep them in check and calmed down to focus on his job. I think they are good together. I really like hearing them work together."

Earnhardt won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 and ran up front before a late flat tire contributed to being caught in an accident. He was 10th at Phoenix and eighth at Las Vegas.

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