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For Earnhardt, closing out a win can’t be easy

- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - It's easy to sit on the couch and list all the things you would have done if you'd been driving Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car over the final few laps at Martinsville Speedway.

Of course, most of us don't have the slightest idea how to drive a race car, let alone maneuver it around a tricky paperclip-shaped short track with Kevin Harvick bearing down on the bumper. And nobody has any idea what it's like to be Earnhardt, who must balance the life of luxury he's created as NASCAR's most popular driver with the burden of being the son of a seven-time champion.

Toss in his failure to win a championship, a losing streak that's closing in on three years and constant questions about his ability, confidence and desire, and, well, it becomes pretty difficult to figure out just what Earnhardt should have done Sunday at Martinsville.

The fact it, he's probably a little rusty when it comes to closing out victories. His last one at the Sprint Cup level was at Michigan in June, 2008, and although he flirted with the win in the closing laps of last year's Daytona 500, he was chasing someone else for the trophy.

It's been a long time, though, since he's had to do any defensive driving. Nobody is saying he's forgotten how to protect a lead late in a race, but it's never as easy as it looks on TV, and it certainly wasn't for Earnhardt on Sunday.

Stuck in a 98-race losing streak, in a car that was probably only good for a top-10 finish, he suddenly found himself in position to race for the win. Crew chief Steve Letarte's strategy and some lucky breaks put him right behind Kyle Busch racing for the win late in Sunday's race.

Nobody would have been surprised if Earnhardt had run Busch over to knock him out of his way. After all, Busch has had the last laugh in 16 visits to Victory Lane since Rick Hendrick fired him to make room for Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports. All those Busch wins have had to embarrass Earnhardt just a little as he floated around the middle of the pack each week.

But Earnhardt didn't wreck him. He instead patiently worked his way onto Busch's rear bumper, and gave him a little nudge when it was time to take the lead. Was it out of bounds? Absolutely not, and Busch said so himself.

"I was holding him up, so it was good for him," Busch said. "He took the lead. No harm, no foul."

Only Earnhardt knows what was going through his mind with that long-overdue victory finally in sight. All he's heard for three years is how NASCAR's success depends on him, and if Earnhardt was winning again, then just maybe the television ratings and attendance problems would be solved.

And that rabid fan base, so passionate in its support of the prodigal son, has literally been starving for just a smidgen of success.

Alas, there was lapped traffic out his front windshield, and Harvick closing quickly in his rearview mirror. His car, remember, was never considered a contender for this win, and holding off Harvick was going to be an unbelievable challenge.

Maybe he should have forced Harvick to move him out of the way. But he didn't, and Harvick, with a faster car, earned it with a solid pass. Then he got back on Harvick's bumper for one last shot at it, and maybe he should have wrecked Harvick to take back the win.

He didn't, though, and his crew chief said that was the right thing to do.

"You can't bump a guy who just ran you down from straightaway back and passed you," Letarte said Monday. "We took it on the chin and understood we were probably a third- or fourth-place car that came home second. And that was all Dale Jr. at the end. I think a lot of people in the sport kind of wrote him off. He hasn't forgotten how to drive, he hasn't lost the desire."

Now Earnhardt will move on this week to Texas, site of his first career win 11 years ago, and where if he doesn't win Saturday night, his losing streak will hit 100 races. But he's got plenty to feel good about right now _ he's obviously faster this year, he's eighth in the standings and his 11.2 average finish right now is up from the last two seasons.

And maybe he learned on Sunday that he can get to the front again, and wins might not be that far away. As he reflected, though, on what might have been, he couldn't help but wonder what he could have done differently.

Knowing that there was possibly something that he did that cost him that victory forced him to temper his excitement with the reality.

"Well, I ain't really proved it to myself yet," Earnhardt said when asked if "he's back."

"I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally. We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we still got a little ways to go."

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