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WINSTON-SALEM JOURNAL



Published: Fri, June 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



WINSTON-SALEM JOURNAL

This is looking like a NASCAR season that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would simply like to start all over again.

Wipe the slate clean and begin anew.

After a miserable time at Dover, Del., Sunday, Earnhardt and new crew chief Steve Hmiel spent a couple of days testing at Michigan for next week's 400-mile race before heading to Pocono for this weekend's Pocono 500.

Dover's concrete is never comfortable for drivers, but Earnhardt had a harder time than usual.

"Bouncing real bad, bouncing like a jackhammer, exactly like a jackhammer, but a jackhammer with rubber tires," Earnhardt said.

He started 15th, based on points, but finished 22nd, and he heads to Pocono for what some expect to be a very strange race, one done with little shifting because of NASCAR's new gear-limiting rules.

Pocono will likely be yet another Jimmie Johnson-Greg Biffle battle, the way that the season's going. Johnson won both Pocono races last season.

Earnhardt, whose best Pocono finish was a third in 2003, finished sixth last year.

"I don't know if I'd call it a 'love-hate relationship'," Earnhardt said of Pocono. "I've yet to fall in love with the place.

"But I'm getting used to it. It was a really difficult place for me when I started out in the Cup series. But we've figured some things out about the race setup, and I've figured some things out on how to drive it.

"We had a pretty good race in June. The second race there [August] wasn't that great, but I was still banged up and had to get out of the car, so that one doesn't count."

Earnhardt had been injured in a crash in a sports-car race at Sonoma in July.

Earnhardt wasn't alone while testing at Michigan this week. Rusty Wallace, Matt Kenseth, Bill Elliott, Dave Blaney and Tony Stewart were all there, too.

As if drivers don't get enough work on the weekend, Blaney will be at Stewart's Eldora (Ind.) Speedway this week, too, promoting a midweek "Prelude to the Dream" race at that legendary short track. The race itself is Saturday, with a $100,000 payday for the 100-lap feature winner.

What Earnhardt expects this time at Pocono is a track-position race, particularly if it's more difficult than usual to pass, as some think it will be.

"Track position is so critical at that place, because if you can get out front in clean air, you can check out and leave them in the dust," Earnhardt said. "But it's tough to get comfortable and find a fast, consistent setup.

"And Pocono can wear you out -- 500 miles there is a long race.

"You hear people talk about finding a good balance in getting the car to handle through all three corners. That's true, but you really want to be sure your car is handling in turn three, so you can get that good momentum down the straightaway."

Turn three is the low-speed corner, sometimes dangerous because drivers like to try to root rivals out of the groove there. In fact, that's how Jeremy Mayfield won in 2000.

For Earnhardt, the pressure is on to make the September cut for the championship series, even though he has three months to make up ground.

"As much as we've struggled, we're still 15th in the standings, and still less than 100 points from sixth," Earnhardt said. "We can make that up pretty quick. Just need a couple of good races the next two or three weeks, and we'll be right back in it."

However, there is the nagging sense that Dale Earnhardt Inc., as a company, just isn't hitting on all cylinders, and that the problems are deeper than just springs and shocks. Hanging over company executives at the moment are the futures for Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr.

Earnhardt understands that, maybe: "We don't think week to week," he said. "We're thinking long-term. We're trying to do what's best for our race team."




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