Finding reasons to believe

“We are starving for a good finish,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has gone 60 races since his last Sprint Cup victory.

Associated Press

“We are starving for a good finish,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has gone 60 races since his last Sprint Cup victory.

HAMPTON, Ga. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is doing his best to forget 2009.

Not a bad way to start.

Junior will be on the pole for the first time in nearly two years today for the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, giving the popular driver another reason to believe he has left behind the most dismal season of his career.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," he said.

Then again, Earnhardt has more in mind than just starting races out front. He wants to be there at the end, too.

"We are starving for a good finish," said Earnhardt, 35, who has gone 60 races since his last Cup win — June 15, 2008, at Michigan. "That is really all we can think about."

Earnhardt's confidence was devastated during a winless 2009. His crew chief was fired midway through the season in hopes of turning things around, but nothing worked. Junior cracked the top five twice and led just 146 laps in 36 races.

Earnhardt's three Hendrick Motorsports teammates — Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon — went 1-2-3 in the season standings. Junior didn't even make the Chase for the Championship and finished 25th.

"We just got beat down last year," Earnhardt said.

During the offseason, car owner Rick Hendrick called on his considerable resources to help the No. 88 team. Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, was persuaded to let go of two crew members, including his lead race engineer. And he was steered toward a partnership with Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew, the sort of relationship that has made Johnson and Gordon such a dynamic pairing.

"We've seen race teams completely change their identity in offseasons before," Earnhardt said. "I hope that's what we've been able to do."

Earnhardt's redemption season got off to a promising start: a hard-charging second-place finish at Daytona. But he was doomed by a broken axle at California, finishing 12 laps behind. He qualified fourth at Las Vegas last week and was in contention for a top-10 finish, though he dropped to 16th.

Now, he's on the pole for the Kobalt Tools 500 — the first time he'll lead the field into a race since April 2008 at Texas.

Earnhardt's blistering lap of 192.761 mph was the fastest pole speed since 2007, before the Car of Tomorrow made its full-time Cup debut.

The speeds won't be as quick on race day, but Earnhardt showed in the final practice Saturday that his qualifying effort was no fluke. He put up the second-fastest lap (185.517), only a thousandth of a second behind Martin on the 1.54-mile trioval.

"It builds a lot of confidence," Earnhardt said. "It's just a matter of time. If we keep performing like this, it should leak over to our performance on Sunday and we can get to where we want to be as a race team."

Trucks: Harvick rolls

Kevin Harvick got tired of watching Kyle Busch win so many truck races, so he did something about it.

Harvick pulled away from Busch for a dominating victory in the E-Z-GO 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Harvick's crew made only one slight adjustment on his Chevrolet truck, taking out three-10ths of a pound of air in the right rear tire on the first pit stop. It was clear from the start he had a machine to beat as long as he stayed out of trouble.

"We just had a really fast truck," Harvick said.

He has won three straight starts in the series and five of his past nine.

"A lot of the reason we race trucks is just to make sure Kyle doesn't win all the races," Harvick said. "Sometimes, you've got to protect your turf."

Harvick led 100 of 130 laps and pulled away to a 1.308-second victory over Busch's Toyota. The runnerup was denied his 17th career truck win.

Geoff Bodine, 60, made his first start in the series since 2004, giving props to the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic bobsled program. But he went out after 106 laps with a gear problem and finished 26th.

.Fast facts

Sprint Cup points

Through 3 of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Kevin Harvick 506—

Clint Bowyer 459 47

Mark Martin 457 49

Matt Kenseth 448 58

J. Johnson 443 63

Greg Biffle 443 63

Jeff Burton 430 76

Joey Logano 413 93

D. Reutimann 397 109

Carl Edwards 389 117

Tony Stewart 386 120

Kyle Busch 375 131

Today

Kobalt Tools 500, 1 p.m., Atlanta Motor Speedway

TV: Ch. 13

Finding reasons to believe 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 10:10pm]

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