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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.




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No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet - Dale Earnhardt Jr [Pic credit: Getty for NASCAR]
(Back Row L-R) Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kelloggs/Frosted Flakes Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Catepillar Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Gwaltney Ford, (Front Row L- R) Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, and Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, pose with the Sprint Cup Trophy after qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
(Back Row L - R) Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kelloggs/Frosted Flakes Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Catepillar Chevrolet, Miss Sprint Cup Madison Martin, Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Gwaltney Ford, (Front Row L- R) Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, pose with the Sprint Cup Trophy after qualifying for the Chase  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, poses with his team in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, races Casey Mears, driver of the #13 GEICO Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Cessna Chevrolet, races Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota, and Joe Nemechek, driver of the #66 Friedman Law Firm Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
A general view of cars racing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, lead the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, poses with the Coors Light Pole Award after qualifying for the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 5, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota, looks on from the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 5, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, climbs into his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 5, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 5, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, applies the winner`s decal in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

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