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Earnhardt eager to leave frustration behind

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Earnhardt eager to leave frustration behind
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Earnhardt eager to leave frustration behind

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't wait to get to Texas Motor Speedway, and his eagerness had nothing to do with how well he typically runs on the big track in the Lone Star State.

No, that anticipation level was directly related to his performance last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, the first real bobble in what has otherwise been an extremely steady early season for Earnhardt and his No. 88 team. He entered that race as the Sprint Cup Series points leader, and the only driver on the circuit to have recorded top-10s in every start to that point. He left after a problematic 24th-place finish that he stewed over until arriving Thursday morning in Fort Worth.

"Everybody handles that kind of stuff differently. I really didn't get over that run last week until we touched down today at Texas. I wanted to get to the race track as soon as I could, just to get that behind me and put a good result on the board and just forget about that run. You can't really do that until you get to the race track," Earnhardt said behind his hauler.

"Steve's got kids -- those kids seem to get you over things like that a little faster," he added, referring to crew chief Steve Letarte. "You get home and you see what they're doing and get involved in their lives and kind of forget about all the bad things happening in your life. I did spend some time with my nephew this week, so that helped out a little bit. But everybody handles it differently. It's hard for me to get over stuff like that, and it takes until I can get to the race track and redeem myself, really, to be able to get over it."

The frustration is understandable, particularly given that much of the damage was self-inflicted. Although Earnhardt was involved in a scrape with Danica Patrick and wound up two laps down to race winner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, he said the problems all started with a loose bolt in the track bar that left the No. 88 car too tight to drive.

"The track bar came loose on the left side and was moving all over the place," Earnhardt said. "We had what Steve labeled as an improper installation. There's a key in the back that holds the sway bar in place on the mount, and that key came out and got turned, so when they tightened the sway bar up in the morning, the key wasn't in place to hold the sway bar tight, and the bolt was able to back out rather easily with just the general forces that it sees in the corners laterally and with all the loads. It came loose and it dropped down, and when you move the track bar down it really, really tightens the car up. ? It moved an inch, which is a big, big, major change, and it really affected the handling of the car. The car just wasn't driving very well, especially at the end of the race."

The problem manifested itself most clearly late in the race, when contact with Patrick caused Earnhardt to spin. But Earnhardt knew it was only a matter of time. "I'm surprised I didn't get run over sooner," he said. Johnson put him a lap down, leading some spectators to wonder if his teammate should have tried to cut him a break --- which Earnhardt said simply wasn't feasible.

"Jimmie couldn't slow down. You slow down, the guy behind you has the right to take your position. I lost a position to (Denny) Hamlin under caution at Phoenix, so I know all about that situation all too well. Jimmie, leading the race, couldn't take that chance," Earnhardt said.

"He did actually try to slow down, and I think he saw I had two left-side flat tires and it was pretty pointless of him to wait. If he stopped at all, the guys behind him would have been able to pass him for that position. He couldn't give up that opportunity or take that chance, take that risk. I would have done the same thing Jimmie did leading the race. I've got to think about my team, my car, what I'm trying to do. I don't think he did it out of spite or anything like that. I think he's just driving his race. We shouldn't have been back there in the first place and been in that position to be run over. But fortunately, it was just a bad day for us, and it just seemed to get worse. But he wasn't doing anything he's not supposed to be doing. The guy's leading the race, you know? He's got to take care of what he's doing. He's got to race to win."

Earnhardt, meanwhile, was left to get whatever he could out of a car that deteriorated as the event went on. Now his attention gratefully turns to Texas, which remains a special venue for a driver who earned his first premier-series victory here in 2000. Although he hasn't won on the 1.5-mile track since then, he has finished inside the top 10 in five of his last six starts.

This Texas race weekend opened with a test Thursday, so teams could collect data on Generation-6 cars making their first laps at the facility. But to Earnhardt, it was less a shakedown and more a step toward returning to Victory Lane here for the first time in 13 years.

"I'm not looking at this like a test," he said. "I'm looking at this like, this is us preparing for the race. ? We're just going to work toward getting our car ready to race, and getting our car fast enough to try to win the race on Saturday night."

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-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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