By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- Not since 2002 had Dale Earnhardt Jr. won more than one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole in a single season.
Earnhardt's track-record run at Dover International Speedway, however, held a significance deeper than merely claiming the top starting position for Sunday's AAA 400, the third race in the Chase.
To Earnhardt, the Coors Light Pole-winning run was emblematic of the progress he has made with crew chief Steve Letarte and his entire No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
"I would say it's a reflection of where the program is," Earnhardt told the NASCAR Wire Service. "Just how Steve and I, since we first started working together ... we have gotten better each year. One of the things we started focusing on last year was qualifying, and I think that has rolled over into this season.
"We continue to put importance on that and try to improve on that. The racing and the cars and the speed the cars have in the races has also improved. We really focused on qualifying last year and even more so this year."
It's also a function of more effective communication between driver and crew chief.
"He and I are working better together," Earnhardt said. "The longer we work together, the better we get at it and the more we understand each other and the more he understands what I need in the car. We have also kept the majority of the team intact from the beginning. That's so important, to keep that together if you can, because everybody sort of learns what they can about each other.
"Steve is really good. ... He has made me a better race car driver. He makes his engineers better. I mean, he is really good at his job. So he deserves a lot of credit for us improving and being able to get these poles and just qualifying better."
Earnhardt maintained his pace during Saturday's practice sessions at the Monster Mile. He was second quickest behind teammate Kasey Kahne in the morning session and fifth fastest in Happy Hour.
A TIME TO HEAL
After a tumultuous month on and off the race track, Martin Truex Jr. finally got some welcome news. The wrist he broke during an accident at Bristol in late August is healing.
The wrist was perhaps the least of his worries. A 50-point penalty from NASCAR, levied after Michael Waltrip Racing, the organization that fields cars for Truex, attempted to manipulate the outcome of the final regular-season Sprint Cup race at Richmond, knocked Truex out of the Chase spot he thought he had earned as a Wild Card.
Truex also suffered from the fallout, learning that his primary sponsor, auto parts retailer NAPA, was opting out of its commitment to MWR at the end of the season.
But the wrist, at least, is on the mend.
"Yeah, we started to see this week it looked a little bit better, so that was good news," Truex said after Friday's time trials at Dover. "The doctor was pretty certain we won't need surgery now, which is a great -- great news after all the bad news I've gotten here lately. So, hopefully, we'll keep a cast on it obviously until it heals completely, and then I'll probably wear some sort of brace at least in the race car for the remainder of the year just to make sure everything's good, just because my wrist will be weak when I first get the cast off.
"Right now, when I get my cast switched out each week, it's like my wrist is really stiff. It doesn't have a lot of mobility already, so it will take me a few weeks to get that back to 100 percent. So we'll probably have some sort of brace for the last few races at least."
Kurt Busch will have a new pit crew, starting Sunday at Dover.
Jettisoning the under-performing No. 78 over-the-wall gang after the first two Chase races, Furniture Row Racing will use the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Nationwide Series crew to pit Busch's car, according to a story on FoxSports.com.
The No. 2 team, which pits the NNS car of Brian Scott, will do double duty this weekend.
"We had to make a change," Busch told FoxSports.com. "As a Chase team, you have to go up to bat each time looking to make contact, and our team had a lot of misses on pit road this year."
Busch ranked 16th in average time on pit road during the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway and was 17th in that category last Sunday at New Hampshire. Busch finished fourth and 13th, respectively, in the two races.