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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]
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Microsoft Chevrolet SS, finishes in fourth place Sunday, August 2, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, qualifies for eighth position Saturday, July 25, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Earnhardt, Jr. is fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finishes in fifth place on Sunday, July 19, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, lead the field to the green flag for the running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, lead the field to a restart during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Pro Services Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images)
the #24 AARP Member Advantages Chevrolet, and David Ragan, driver of the #55 Aaron`s Dream Machine Toyota, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo Credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, affixes the winner`s decal to his car in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates with the chequered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on July 10, 2015 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the #88 Nationwide Stars And Stripes Chevrolet SS, takes the chequered flag, Sunday July 5, 2015, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Following in second place is Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Patriotic Chevrolet SS. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the #88 Nationwide Stars And Stripes Chevrolet SS, takes the chequered flag, Sunday July 5, 2015, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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