<
>

Earnhardt looking for win and Texas could be it

Not that fourth place is what Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s after, but when it's all you can get on a day that appears headed toward DNF, it's a remarkable finish and one worthy of applause.

Which is exactly what he got last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. A more patient and mature Junior has followed a team motto of getting the most out of every lap to snap out of last season's funk and sit comfortably in sixth place in the standings.

"I am just really proud of the whole effort everybody has given me this year," he said. "We had a hard year last year. This company has bounced back really hard and I try to do my job on Sunday. They give me great cars. I get to take credit for wheeling on it, but man, you can't do it if your car don't work and my car was working real good today. That is due to all the work back at the shop."

No doubt about that. But there's also no doubt that Junior's been doing some serious "wheeling on it," too.

At Martinsville, he drove all but the first two laps of the race with nearly half of his front fender missing courtesy of a Lap 2 wreck. After battling back from that, he was party to another accident about 300 laps later.

"I remember Harry Gant winning a race with a car that sort of looked like that," he said after the race. "Beating and banging, man I was worried that my car was really tore up too bad to be competitive."

But it was competitive. And after managing to stay afloat through it all, Junior brought home a top five and incited a raucous ovation from his throng of supporters.

"That was really cool," he said. "It means a lot. That's really the biggest reward out of the whole deal is when everybody appreciates what you do. To be honest, I don't ever remember getting cheered like that for anything less than a win, so it's neat that they recognized what we went through to get that top five. It was loud. They were chanting, cheering, raisin' hell. I wish I could've been up there with them, because I'm sure it was a fun race to watch.

"I think people are finally seeing that we know what we're doing. The guys are spending late hours there. I'm just so proud of the whole effort everybody's giving me this year."

Starting the season with much of the old team he had immediate Cup success with has to have helped. The whole No. 8 team is feeling reinvigorated and pumped about assuming the title-contending position they lost last year when the DEI teams shook up the crews.

But Junior's patience and composure -- and increased presence at the shop -- has helped, too.

The season is young, but with a series of tracks high on Junior's list of favorites coming up, the confidence is high for the Bud team. Especially for this weekend's event at Texas Motor Speedway, where Junior won as a rookie in 2000.

"That's pretty neat, a pretty cool honor," he recalled. "It was definitely one of my top moments because it was a wake-up call to the world that the Bud team was officially on the premises. That was a special day. And it was a very special Victory Lane with my dad and all. I remember him popping his head into my car as I pulled into Victory Lane, and he told me that he loved me and to soak this all in, because you can get so swept up with what's happening all around you that you can't enjoy it for yourself.

"Then he told me to find my own way home, because he wasn't waiting on me."

As well as Junior and the 8 team have performed during this young season, they're awaiting their first victory. But with confidence high and momentum flowing, not to mention starting 15th, the crew is feeling good about this weekend's odds. Junior says the certainty he feels is in part credited to having his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., as crew chief.

"I was pretty optimistic last year going into the season," he said. "The only thing different this year is I have my cousin working with me again. So, there is that comfort aspect and familiarity. It is easier to know what to expect this year, whereas last year, we were optimistic but uncertain about how well we were going to do."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.