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Earnhardt hungry for win

Patrick 31st in Nationwide race

By Stephen Hawkins
Associated Press / February 21, 2010

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FONTANA, Calif. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t getting too excited about his late charge to a surprise second-place finish at Daytona.

While Earnhardt admittedly enjoyed the ride - and the reminder of “what success or what doing something good feels like’’ - he knows a near-win one race into the season at a track where he’s been good before isn’t a sure indication that everything is right again.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 team needs more good finishes, and the next chance is today’s Auto Club 500.

But yesterday the spotlight again was on NASCAR newcomer Danica Patrick, who finished 31st in the Nationwide series Stater Bros. 300, three laps behind winner Kyle Busch.

After the season-opening Daytona 500, the restrictor plates are off today and it’s time to get on the type of track that dominates the 36-race Sprint Cup season. First comes the 2-mile speedway here, then the 1 1/2-mile Las Vegas track next weekend.

“I know I wouldn’t be able to really convince anybody that we were back or we are a strong team or had fixed anything until we come to these kind of tracks and run good at them,’’ Earnhardt said.

“Everybody in the garage kind of feels like this is the start of the regular season. Daytona is so different than every other kind of racing that we do and of course it’s the Daytona 500,’’ said Jimmie Johnson, the four-time Sprint Cup champion and California native who has won four times at his home track. “Everybody is really interested and anxious to understand where we are with the cars.’’

Jamie McMurray followed up his whirlwind week of interviews and appearances as the Daytona 500 champion by qualifying on the pole at 183.744 m.p.h., giving Earnhardt Ganassi Racing a front-row sweep. Juan Pablo Montoya starts alongside McMurray after qualifying second, with Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne in the second row.

Earnhardt starts 27th at Auto Club Speedway, where his best finish in 16 races was runner-up to Kahne in September 2006.

At Daytona, Earnhardt came out of nowhere to almost steal the win during NASCAR’s version of overtime. He was 22d on the first attempt at a green-white-checker finish and moved into 10th place before a caution set up another restart, and he charged to McMurray’s bumper.

“Things just kind of worked out. All the runs and all the pushes and all the holes just worked out and lined up perfectly for us,’’ Earnhardt said. “I got more text messages and phone calls about those last few laps than I did when I won the damn race. I really enjoyed that.’’

Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 champion and a winner there in July 2001, still has a 58-race winless streak and has won just once in his last 135 races. That win was in June 2008 during his first season with the Hendrick Motorsports team that also includes Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who knows it’s good for NASCAR when Earnhardt is running well.

“It’s absolutely important, and anybody out here that feels like that’s a joke is only kidding themselves,’’ Gordon said. “When he’s doing well and the spotlight’s on him, it brings more attention to the sport and it helps and benefits all of us, no doubt about it.’’

Earnhardt said he feels good about his team and crew chief Lance McGrew, who is starting his first full season after replacing Tony Eury Jr. last May and having the interim tag removed by Hendrick in late October. That gave them a whole offseason together to get ready for 2010.

“We built a lot of new cars. We did a lot of hard work, Lance especially, during the offseason to put us in a position to bring better cars to this race and to Vegas and so forth,’’ Earnhardt said. “Just give me a good car and I can run real good.’’

Hendrick has won eight races at California, the most by any team - but only one more than Roush Fenway Racing.

Roush has won the last five February races at Auto Club Speedway. Matt Kenseth won three of the last four, while Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle also won.

“It’s fun to race out here. I’m from the West Coast, so it kind of feels like coming home,’’ said Biffle, who finished third at Daytona. “Last week was really how well the guys did over the winter on the restrictor plate cars and how well we were prepared for Daytona. This race is really how we’re prepared for the rest of the season.’’