FONTANA, Calif. - Another week, more expectations for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR's most popular driver got off to a good start in his new ride at Hendrick Motorsports, winning the non-points Budweiser Shootout and his 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona.
A ninth-place finish in last Sunday's Daytona 500 wasn't bad, either. And he did lead some laps.
But it's not what Earnhardt's fans expect from their hero, whose decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. and sign with the powerhouse Hendrick outfit was one of the biggest stories of 2007.
Heading into today's Auto Club 500 at the newly renamed Auto Club Speedway - formerly California Speedway - Little E is winless in 63 races since May 2006 at Richmond.
Earnhardt was supposed to compete last night in the Nationwide Series race, but rain forced its postponement until today, when it will be run following the Auto Club 500.
For Earnhardt to get back into the win column today, he is going to have to improve on past performances at the track 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
In 12 races here, Earnhardt has five top-10 finishes, topped by a fifth-place run last February.
Earnhardt is mostly satisfied with what he and his No. 88 Chevrolet team have done so far.
"Yeah, we had a good start, so I'm real proud of that," Earnhardt said. "We're looking forward to the rest of the year, just trying to keep that momentum going and continue to have a good, solid season."
With rain washing out qualifying Friday, Earnhardt will line up 15th based on the car-owner points his team inherited from last year at Hendrick.
One thing that hasn't changed for Earnhardt is fan support.
Despite moving from his familiar red No. 8 Chevy to the white and green No. 88, people - lots of them - still stand and cheer whenever he drives into the lead or makes a positive move.
With rain keeping everyone off the 2-mile California track Friday, Earnhardt also had plenty of time to reflect on the penalty that NASCAR hit his Nationwide team with last week for having an illegal rear spoiler in the opening inspection.
Earnhardt was docked 50 points, car owner Rick Hendrick lost 50 points, and crew chief Chad Walter was fined $25,000, suspended for six weeks, and put on probation through the end of the year.
The team has appealed the punishments, but Earnhardt said, "I think the penalty was fair. The suspension is tough for my crew chief. I need my crew chief to be working on his car and going to the racetrack.
"Everybody on that side of the garage is sort of pinching pennies at this point because of how difficult it is to get sponsorship dollars over there. But we're just going to try to see if we can get them to reduce the suspension side of it for our sake."
Another new challenge for Earnhardt is working with teammates whose fame rivals his own.
Two-time reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon, last year's runner-up, are his Hendrick teammates, along with Casey Mears, who won his first Cup race last year. That trio combined to win 17 races last season. Earnhardt is just hoping their winning ways rub off on him - and soon.
"It's great to have teammates like those guys who are on top of their game and who are really talented," Earnhardt said. "Friendly competition can be a really good positive to any team. What it is, is when you have a guy who makes everyone improve their game. We all hope we can do that for each other."