Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looking to Validate Second-Place Finish at ACS on Sunday

Sal Sigala Jr.Senior Analyst IFebruary 20, 2010

FONTANA, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives the #88 AMP Energy Juice/National Guard Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway on February 19, 2010 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jason Smith/Getty Images

After electrifying what was left of the sell-out crowd during the last lap of the 52nd running of the Daytona 500 last Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking forward to riding the wave of momentum as the NASCAR series heads into sunny Southern California for the Auto Club 500, this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Earnhardt, who will be sporting a new orange-and-white paint job on his No. 88 Amp Juice Chevrolet Impala, will definitely be a fan favorite when he takes to the two-mile oval that has been one of his biggest nemesis.

"The car looks awesome and the orange is going to look good on the track. I think everyone pretty much knows I'm not a morning person, so AMP Juice is a good wakeup call on mornings when I have to be up early,” said Earnhardt during his weekly press conference.

In 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Auto Club Speedway, Earnhardt has scored three top-five finishes and four top-10s and led 25 laps.

He recorded a career-best runner-up finish at the California racetrack in September 2006, when he ran out of laps trying to catch eventual race winner Kasey Kahne under a very warm Southern California evening.

"I haven't typically been good at California, but it's easier to go there after we ran good at Daytona,” said Earnhardt.

“I'm looking forward to seeing how we are as a team. The entire team had an awesome showing these past two weeks. I want to go to Fontana and be competitive.”

Earnhardt also added that, “I think how we run the next few weeks will be a little more validation of where we are. Lance (McGrew, crew chief) and the guys are working hard so hopefully we will have a good run in Fontana."

After coming from 10th place to finish second in “The Great American Race,” Earnhardt was not too happy with his finish, while displaying a fire that has not been seen since coming to Hendrick Motorsports to begin the 2008 season.

“I was running second [thinking that] this is awesome, but it kind of sucks at the same time,” Earnhardt Jr. said.

“It was frustrating to come that close. I feel good about the finish, it's just frustrating coming that close," he said.

"When you're running 22nd, you're mad because you just want to get a top 10. When you get a top 10, you're (mad) because you can't get in the top 5. Then when you're running second, it gets you mad because you didn't get a win."

After last weekend's second-place finish, the scrutinizing was in full force by the legion of fans who have chosen to rebel against the Nation, as many of them felt the runner-up finish was not the turning point in Earnhardt’s career.

Many of Earnhardt’s faithful posted comment after comment stating that NASCAR’s most popular was back, and ready to begin winning races again while basing their beliefs off of a push by MWR driver David Reutimann that was the catalyst for Earnhardt’s second-place finish.

You have to admit that there were some valid points being made for and against the driver of the No. 88 HMS Amp/National Guard-sponsored Chevy, but one thing needs to be remembered and its way to early in the year to base the rest of the season off of one move.

Another reason why so much was made out of the move falls back on the driver’s last name, along with his fans who feel that he has the skill to repeat that performance over and over again.

With each passing week that Earnhardt fails to make it into victory lane, the odds grow more and more against him that he will be able to shake the black cloud that is hovering above him, waiting for its chance to destroy yet another season.

Last year after finishing second at Talladega Speedway on April 26, it took Earnhardt four months to pick up one more top five before the season ended, which for a driver of his caliber is not acceptable.

That’s unless he no longer belongs in that group of drivers who are able to kick adversity out of the way, and rebound with a string of strong finishes.

For the next few weeks the eyes of the NASCAR world will be upon this 35-year-old Kannapolis, N.C., native, to see if indeed he is ready to show some real signs of improvement, or if he will fall back into the abyss that he has been stuck in for the past couple of years.

Momentum is a tool that, if used correctly, can carry a driver far and beyond what he has ever imagined, but it can also backfire and set a driver even farther back than when he first started.

Earnhardt is at a turning point in his career, and now its up to him to let go of whatever it was that took him down, knowing that at one time it had promise written all over it.