Dale Earnhardt out in front, hopes Daytona is the start of a turnaround season

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Here's something you haven't read in a while: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in first place.
OK, so it was only two laps. And it was a rain-shortened practice at Daytona International Speedway - the place where Earnhardt is, well, kind of good.
Still, in a season in which Earnhardt is facing a new round of intensifying questions about his lack of on-track success, it's better to be fast than slow even if it doesn't count toward anything.
Earnhardt led two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates to the top of the speed chart in Friday's abbreviated practice session, and it could be the first sign that he's back on the right track after the worst season of his career.
"His heart really, really, really is in it," said teammate Mark Martin. "He's incredibly driven to have the success, and his team is behind it. I think you'll see a spectacular year for him."
Boy, does he need one.
NASCAR's most popular driver had his confidence shattered in a winless 2009 season. He failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, his crew chief was fired midseason and he managed just five top-10 finishes all year.
His teammates, meanwhile, combined for 13 victories and swept the top three spots in the final season standings.
The lack of production increased the already-bright spotlight on Earnhardt, who found there was little escape from the scrutiny on his lack of performance. At the halfway point of the season, he revealed a fear of not being strong enough to handle the strain of another trying season.
"I can't have another year like this. I can't mentally. I can't physically. I don't want to put the people around me through this," Earnhardt admitted. "When we were really, really struggling, everybody in the family was upset. Crying and carrying on. All the women were crying, the men we're cussing. I'm serious.
"We can't put anybody through this (stuff) again. We've got to get this right."
Team owner Rick Hendrick agreed, and made fixing Earnhardt's No. 88 team the top off-season priority at Hendrick Motorsports.
It became all hands on deck as Hendrick leaned on Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson to help Earnhardt's team. Gustafson allowed two of his crew members - including his lead race engineer - to move over to the No. 88, and he agreed to work with Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew to create a partnership similar to the one Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have used with smashing success.
Johnson, who displays the trophies from his four consecutive championships in his office above the shop floor where Earnhardt's cars are built, believes Hendrick has executed the best possible plan for Earnhardt to succeed.
"It's been tough on him. I think his confidence has been beat down some, and I think the unification between the 88 and the 5 is very good for him," Johnson said. "He looks up to Mark. He seems to respond very well to folks that have been around the sport for a long time. Mark is more than willing, especially if Junior engages himself and asks the right questions."
But, Johnson cautioned, it's going to take a willingness for Earnhardt to open up more to his teammates.
"He can't do it on his own. He's been more internal and to himself on cars, setups, kind of been on his own little island," Johnson said. "If he really embraces the teammate standpoint and is right there alongside with Mark day in and day out, they'll get it figured out.
"It may take changes in driving style, a lot of things that aren't familiar to him, but he's gonna have every opportunity and we're making sure he does."
Earnhardt disagreed with Johnson's assessment.
"You know, I think I'm kind of shy at times, but I've never really been against really working together and trying to take two teams and be stronger," he said.
His first chance to prove it comes Saturday night in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, a race he's won twice before, including in his 2008 debut with Hendrick Motorsports. He followed that win with a victory five days later in one of Daytona's twin qualifying races, setting the stage for a potential sweep with a win in the 500.
He came up short with a ninth-place finish, but it raised expectations for the pairing of the popular driver with NASCAR's most successful team.
It never happened.
Earnhardt won just once that season - his only points-race victory since joining HMS - and hit a slump when the Chase began. He never contended for the championship and finished last in the 12-driver field.
It only got worse last season, when he opened the year with a sub-par showing at Daytona, where he's won 12 races spanning NASCAR's top two series.
He wants to be back out front again, badly. He was for two laps Friday, and hopes to parlay that into a lot more.
"I'd like to be able to get back out there and start doing some of the things I should be doing and should have done last year. Should have done the year before," he said. "Win some races, be a prominent fixture in the top five every week. Win some more races."

Organizations: NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway, Johnson's

Geographic location: DAYTONA BEACH

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