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Monday, February 7, 2011
Updated: February 13, 1:06 PM ET
Dale Earnhardt Jr. shrugs off early exit

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For a guy who'd just wrecked out of what he'd hoped would be a splashy start to Speedweeks -- this on top of carrying the weight of the NASCAR world on his shoulders the past few years -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. sure was loose, cool and happy Saturday night.

He laughed with new crew chief Steve Letarte as they inspected the damage Earnhardt's Chevrolet incurred on the 28th lap of the Bud Shootout.

That was early but substantive evidence that Letarte is already working his plan to "flatten out that [emotional] roller coaster and keep it a little more on the positive side …"

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte already seem to be working well together, despite crashing out of Saturday's Bud Shootout.

That's where Earnhardt clearly stood.

"We had a real good car and felt like we had a strong enough car to win -- and our Daytona 500 car is even better," he said. "I feel pretty confident after this little bit of track time we got."

He razzed one of his favorite TV reporters, our Marty Smith of ESPN, by intentionally messing up the sound bites Smith hoped for.

"The nose ain't nothin' man," he cut off Smith's question about how much of an education he'd gotten on the newly paved track, with new noses on the cars that cover up the old splitters. "Ain't nothin' to the nose."

And what about the new pavement?

"The pavement's solid," Earnhardt deadpanned, watching closely for Smith's reaction. "No potholes."

He gave a merry shrug to the new two-by-two hookups that have evolved this week as the only way to race on the new pavement, leaving the trailing car overheating after only a few laps.

"Everybody's gonna get hot following each other and you need to make switches," he said. "You find a partner and you race with that partner. When he needs to switch, his spotter will tell another spotter.

"Make a pass, make a switch, get going again. Just repeat the cycle over and over and over. Just like Batman and Robin."

Of course he'd rather have won the Shootout, as he did in 2008 to kick off his contract with Hendrick Motorsports.

So this did hurt a bit.

"Oh, yeah. I'm disappointed that we had an accident," he said.

But here came Letarte back onto his mind.

"This team's got a lot of good energy, and we were trying to have a good finish tonight, just to give us some momentum going into the rest of Speedweeks.

"But Steve's got a great attitude, man. He'll turn -- we'll turn this thing right around and get ready for Wednesday when we hit the track again [to practice in groups]."

Saturday night, "it was kind of out of our hands," Earnhardt said.

I'm disappointed that we had an accident. This team's got a lot of good energy, and we were trying to have a good finish tonight, just to give us some momentum going into the rest of Speedweeks.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He was trying to get hooked up with Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson to work in the new two-by-two style. Upon trying to drop back to pick up Johnson, Earnhardt was hit by Carl Edwards and sent into the wall on the backstretch.

"Me and Jimmie were trying to work together," Earnhardt said. "We were just kind of sinking through the field but we were gonna be patient and try to get together because we'd planned to pit together and work the rest of the race together."

Then, "on the back straightaway it looked like a couple of guys got together and I was watching in my mirror and saw Carl get shoved into my quaterpanel, and just got turned around."

Said Edwards, "We were three- or four-wide back there and I was going between the 88 [Earnhardt] and the 78 [Regan Smith] and I don't think the 78 knew I was in there. He kept coming down and I just had enough of my car in there. I laid up against the 88 and then the 78 got me in the right-front …"

But Earnhardt was already looking toward Thursday's twin 150-mile qualifying races, and the Daytona 500 itself.

With the so-called dancing partner strategy, "it'll be a rough race to run like that for 500 miles," Earnhardt said. "I'm not sure the motors will be able to take the cycle of the temperature."

That is, the overheating, pulling out to cool down, overheating again, cooling down, for 500 miles.

But it looks like Earnhardt is well on his way to keeping his own emotions at an even temperature.

Which might just be more of a start toward resurgence than if he'd won the Shootout.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.