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Auto Club 500 an important race for Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Jr looks to build on Daytona 500 result as the Sprint Cup heads for Fontana
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.




Related Pictures

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No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet - Dale Earnhardt Jr [Pic credit: Getty for NASCAR]
Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, Trevor Bayne, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, Justin Allgaier, driver of the #51 Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet, and Michael Annett, driver of the #7 Allstate Peterbilt/Pilot Chevrolet, are involved in an incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet SS, captures the flag with his victory Sunday, August 3, 2014 after winning Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, August 3, 2014 in Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory Sunday, August 3, 2014 after winning Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory Sunday, August 3, 2014 after winning Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane with a broom after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Michael Baker International Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2014 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, center, celebrates with team owner Rick Hendrick, left, daughter Ella Sophia and wife Ingrid Vandebosch by kissing the bricks after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
The Richard Childress Racing #3 Chevrolet Nationwide Series car driven by Ty Dillon. (Photo Credit: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, drives through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents, the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, drive driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning during the NASCAR Nationwide Series EnjoyIllinios.com 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series EnjoyIllinois.com 300 race at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series EnjoyIllinois.com 300 race at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet, wins the EnjoyIllinois.com 300 race at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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