Earnhardt intentions clear from the start

jutter@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 16, 2013 

  • Daytona 500 qualifying

    Only the first two spots will be determined in time trials Sunday. All other spots will be determined in two qualifying races Thursday.

    Two-lap time trials: 1 p.m., TV: Fox

    Qualifying Duel races: First race at 2 p.m. Thursday (SPEED)

    Daytona 500: Next Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Fox

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. prefers not to look back.

But he does like to remember.

There were many positives from the 2012 Sprint Cup season, including his first victory in four years, a second consecutive appearance in the Chase and a feeling he and his Hendrick Motorsports team could contend for a championship.

Those title hopes were dashed when he was forced to miss two races to recover from a concussion.

While his chance at a first series title was lost, his desire and belief it still can happen were not.

Earnhardt’s quest will resume at 1 p.m. Sunday at Daytona International Speedway with qualifying for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.

“To find motivation and excitement, I look back on how well we performed throughout the year,” Earnhardt said last week. “Things like how we were leading the points and how things were going mid-point in the season. How strong we were in the summer, which had been a terrible time for me historically.

“It was a disappointment not to finish as well as we had hoped in the Chase and really go for the championship. …

“We definitely have some unfinished business and feel like we can put forth the same effort and the same results this year.”

With his first victory in hand since 2008, Earnhardt entered the 2012 Chase as the eighth seed but only nine points out of the lead.

Although not performing as well as he had earlier in the season, Earnhardt was in the hunt for the title after the Oct. 7 race at Talladega, Ala., when he got caught up in a last-lap accident and finished 20th.

He left Talladega 11th in points but with something far worse – lingering effects from a concussion, which forced him to miss races 31 and 32 of the season.

It actually was Earnhardt’s second concussion within six weeks. The first, during a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway, went undiagnosed until after the Talladega accident.

Earnhardt returned to his No. 88 Chevrolet for the Oct. 28 race at Martinsville, Va.

“He absolutely should have gotten out of the car,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “We probably should not have let him back in the car the race after (his testing accident).

“If I had known how bad he was hurt, we would not have let him go back racing. We did the right thing and I feel confident this will be his year. He was that close last year to being there.”

The months and weeks leading to the Talladega wreck had left Earnhardt feeling pretty well about his chances at a first Cup title.

The start of the Chase – which featured finishes of eighth, 13th and 11th – were not as good as he hoped, but Earnhardt was in the title hunt.

“With the way we ran last year, I was getting a real sense that we were starting to compete at that level as a team that had the opportunity to win the championship,” he said.

“It got really exciting. … Our time is now.”

Crew chief Steve Letarte is on the same page with his driver.

“Well, none of us are reversing in age,” Letarte said of the need to cash in on title shots. “Every year you have top-notch equipment that you don’t end up as a championship contender, you miss an opportunity.

“I’m very proud to make the Chase, but the next step is to make the Chase and stay in it to get to the last three or four races and have a legitimate shot. When there is an opportunity to pick up and run with the ball, you have to be there.”

Earnhardt and his team plan to “be there” from the start this year.

Despite a new model car – and a little less understanding of how it will race – Earnhardt never has felt better about claiming his first title.

“We have a chance if we can just find some more pieces and keep improving. We have steadily gotten better over the last couple of years,” he said.

“If we can continue to do that and keep applying ourselves and keep working and not get complacent about certain things, then we can be one of those teams that are sitting there in Homestead (Fla.) with a shot at it.

“I really believe that.”

There is an army of fans who would like to as well.

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