0

Earnhardt feeling the pressure of new Hendrick ride

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is already feeling the pressure, and the season hasn't even started.

As his winless streak nears two years, NASCAR's most popular driver knows he must produce in his new Hendrick Motorsports ride.

Anxious about the new job and the pressure of driving for the elite team, Earnhardt showed up a week early at preseason testing just to talk to his new teammates.

Back this week to actually drive his No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt went right to work. His single lap speed of 185.820 mph Tuesday morning easily bettered the mark of 184.782 mph set by teammate Jimmie Johnson in last week's session, and Earnhardt was 10th fastest when drafting began in the afternoon.

'I just like running up front every week,' he said. 'I like going to the racetrack and being ... toward the top of the chart, at least on the left side of the page in practices.'

It's a good start to a fresh season, one without the drama that engulfed him last year when he publicly sparred with stepmother Teresa. His unhappiness was painfully evident this time last year, when he used his media availability session at testing to reveal their relationship 'ain't no bed of roses' and said contract negotiations with Dale Earnhardt Inc. were tense.

Four months later, he decided to leave his late father's company and embarked on the most frenzied free agency in NASCAR history. Courted by just about every car owner in the industry, he settled on Hendrick in June and anxiously awaited switching teams.

Now that he's officially a Hendrick driver, he knows the expectations are immense. Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season, and Johnson is the two-time defending Cup champion.

Earnhardt, meanwhile, hasn't won since May 6, 2006, in Richmond, a span of 46 races.

'There's a little bit less pressure in certain areas and more pressure in other areas,' he said. 'I didn't have to worry about job security when I was over at my other job, but I've got to worry about that now. I think if I do what I've been doing, I should be fine. But with being the son of the guy who built the place, you can get away with a few more things than most guys could.

'But I've got a really good owner that makes me feel comfortable, and so that eases a lot of other pressures, talking to him and hearing from him and listening to his thoughts on what we're doing. It takes away some pressure from that side of it.'

The expectations clearly exist, though, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. did his part to pile on by predicting Monday the team will win four races this season. He didn't back off the number when pressed Tuesday, either.

'You try to find a realistic number because too many people try to get you to make predictions and want you to say 'We're gonna win 11, or we can for sure get 10,'" Eury said. 'But four should be simple. I mean, I look at how competitive we ran last year - and things happened - and if we close out them deals this year, we should be able to win four races easily.

'I'm not guaranteeing anything. But I'm going to be disappointed if we don't win at least four. I know what kind of equipment we've got around here, know what kind of people we've got around us. I don't see any reason why that shouldn't be our goal and it should be a reachable goal.'

Earnhardt refused to play the prediction game.

'I don't want to sit here and guess how many races we'll win,' he said. 'We'll win some races, and I expect to win soon. I'm a good driver with a good team, and if we don't make mistakes on a Sunday, we should have great finishes and win some races.'

All of that has allowed Earnhardt and Eury to relax a bit after a stressful 2007 that saw them fighting to stay focused amid all the drama that surrounded their exit from DEI. The team failed to make the Chase, which ultimately freed Eury to go to Hendrick before the season ended but still led to a disappointing departure.

Now, with a clean slate, both driver and crew chief are excited for the season to start next month.

'I am 10 times happier,' Eury said. 'And you can see it on Dale Jr.'s face. He's more pumped up than ever. He's pumped up to be down here, and the main sign was he showed up last week at the test. He used to never want to be at the race track, and this year he's down here hanging out with the guys and his teammates.

'We really just can't wait to get rolling.'