Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just finished second in the biggest stock car race in the world, but he sounded as if he had just gotten bad news from his veterinarian.

Few smiles emerged from his car with him after the Daytona 500, and his appearance at the postrace news conference was about as joyful as a Swedish movie.

In a failed attempt to extract some exuberance, somebody praised his run.

"I feel pretty good. I'm happy for my team," he dead-panned.

A couple of things evidently factored into Earnhardt's faint-pulse tone.

First, he had just finished second -- and not first -- in the big one. And second, he knew that doing well at Daytona means nothing when it comes to answering one of NASCAR's most important questions: Is this the season Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaks out of his on-track funk?

Earnhardt and everybody else who participates or follows NASCAR knows week two of the season is much more significant than week one when it comes to doping out just how things will shake out by week 36.

Week 2 means the trip west to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the Auto Club 500 and the stashing away of restrictor plates for a couple months.

For race teams, it means they will get their first real indication of whether the offseason work has produced improvement or more of the same.

In Earnhardt's case, the indications are quite a bit more anticipated than for others. That's because he is Earnhardt and because he has fallen pretty flat since coming over to Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season.

Flat as in one victory in 73 attempts, five DNFs in 2009 and a 25th-place finish in points last year on a team whose other drivers finished 1-2-3 in the Chase.

In the two years since he announced -- at a news conference broadcast live on television -- he was leaving the team founded by his iconic father and then owned by his stepmother, he has become the target of scorn, derision and pity.

The past two off-seasons have become a game of table tennis between those who love him and say things will be different vs. those who don't and say they won't.

Earnhardt indicated in the recent offseason and during Speedweeks that he thinks this could be the year of the big breakout at Hendrick. He points to things such as having a solidified relationship with crew chief Lance McGrew and an intensified partnership with the HMS operation of Mark Martin and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson.

And Speedweeks did go very well for Earnhardt and his team. They were fast in practices, they were second-fastest in qualifying and then there was that incredible charge from 22nd to second after the final green-white-chequered restart in the 500.

But then came the low-key postrace words and body language.

"This is awesome, but it kind of sucks at the same time," Earnhardt said. "I feel good about our chances going into the next couple weeks. It's just one race. We got a lot more racing to do."

Starting Sunday afternoon at Fontana.

Auto Club Speedway offers a nice follow-up to Daytona for a couple reasons. It's wide and flatish, and though it is two miles around, it is the kind of track upon which the majority of Sprint Cup races are run.

Fast at Daytona in February means, at best, that you might be fast at the summer race at Daytona and at the two Talladega Superspeedway races.

Fast at California can mean your team is onto something that will translate to 13 other events and five of the ten Chase races.

"Like I said," Earnhardt said after Daytona, "this is not a true gauge on what the changes are going to do to our team. The next couple racetracks will definitely give us a better understanding of where we are.

"If we can go to Fontana (and) Vegas, be competitive at any point during them races, it would be a little more validation."

Earnhardt has never been good at Auto Club. He is winless in 16 starts. He has three top-five finishes but five DNFs there. His average finish is 22.1.

Never been a huge fan of the early season West Coast swing, he says.

But at the same time, he knows how important it is. Especially this year.

"I don't like going out West, but it's much easier to go there after you run good somewhere else," Earnhardt said. "You know, I look forward to seeing how we are as a team."

by Jim Pedley/Sporting News

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