Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Earnhardt Finally Feels at Ease; Veteran Driver Keeping Focus on Just Racing

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Earnhardt Finally Feels at Ease; Veteran Driver Keeping Focus on Just Racing

Article excerpt

Byline: Don Coble

Dale Earnhardt Jr. started fast a year ago. He won a race and teetered between first and fifth in the standings for the first 25 races.

But he missed two races in the Chase for the Championship and wound up 12th in the final standings.

Maybe that's why he's not getting overly optimistic about being atop the Sprint Cup Series standings again.

The most-popular driver in NASCAR has the points lead heading into Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500 at the Martinsville Speedway. He's finished in the top 10 in all five races so far, including second-place runs at Daytona Beach, and Fontana, Calif.

He believes the first 10 races of the current season will help define his chances to win his first championship. So far, he's on schedule.

"I just really put a focus on the first 10 races because it's important to the Chase," he said.

"I think if you get behind, you'll be in that battle at Richmond [the final race of the regular season in September] and then all that stuff is big distractions. So last year we were able to get a good 10-race start to the season and not have to worry about the points deal.

"We were comfortable in the summer and we could worry about our car and think about other things and not be stressed out about our points situation. No matter how good a race team you are, if you get behind, it's a battle all the way to Richmond. And we don't want to be in that situation."

It took him a few years to create his own way in NASCAR, especially after his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

The third-generation driver now seems to be better prepared to win a championship. While he remains the highest-paid driver in the sport - Forbes estimated his annual income at a series-best $25 million. He leaves most of his outside interests to his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller. …

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