- Associated Press - Friday, April 13, 2012

FORT WORTH, TEXAS (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems so close to finally winning again.

There was his runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and consecutive third-place finishes before the Easter weekend break. He hasn’t finished lower than 15th while completing every lap this season, and is second in points only six behind Greg Biffle.

So is this the weekend that that Earnhardt’s 135-race, nearly 4-year winless streak in NASCAR Sprint Cup comes to an end?

“People know I’m not Nostradamus, so they don’t ask me questions about the future,” Earnhardt said.

Based on the performance so far this season, though, Earnhardt is confident that the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is getting closer to being back in Victory Lane.

“I think it’s a pretty easy argument to win that we’re better this year than we were last year, and better than the year before that. So we’re getting closer,” he said. “I don’t really know what the measuring stick is but I think hopefully it’s real close. … We’re going to just keep trying. We’re getting closer though, at least that’s the bright spot of the deal.”

Earnhardt qualified 16th for Saturday night’s race.

It was at the 1 1/2-mile high-banked Texas track where the younger Earnhardt got his first victory in both of NASCAR’s top two series. He had a pair of top-10 Sprint Cup finishes here last year.

Earnhardt got his first win in what is now the Nationwide Series in 1998.

Two years later, he got his first of his 18 Cup victories. One of the memorable images from that day is a photo of Dale Jr. being embraced by his late father in Victory Lane.

“It’s really hard to remember 12 years ago when your first race is a great feeling,” he said. “I’ve answered this question several times in this room and it gets harder every time just because it gets further away. But you’re just relieved because you want to be able to do this for a living and there’s no guarantees.”


MINI DENNY: Denny Hamlin introduced the 6-year-old boy in the identical firesuit as his backup.

Hamlin, who will have a special March of Dimes paint scheme on his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet for Saturday night’s race, was joined Friday by Kieran Wittstruck. The energetic boy is the 2012 national ambassador for March of Dimes from the Seattle area who was born about two months premature.

While Wittstruck wouldn’t be able to reach the pedals, he is a budding mechanical engineer who likes to do things with his hands. At the beginning of the 15-minute interview session, the boy was already pulling the microphone out of its stand and examining it.

“He’s a gadget type of guy. I’m afraid to let him near my car, I might be missing some lugnuts,” Hamlin said, smiling. “He likes to mess with tools and stuff like that. … He’ll eventually find out where (the microphone) goes back in. He’s good with his hand.”

Sure enough, the microphone was back in its original state within a couple of minutes.


WRONG SPOT: Jimmie Johnson walked to the spot he was accustomed to going in the garage at Texas Motor Speedway.

“My little route I’ve walked for the last five years, I walked right on by my transporter and walked up and looked at the No. 14 truck,” Johnson said Friday.

The No. 14 is that of defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, in the spot where Johnson had been the last five years as the defending champion. That also happened in the season opener at Daytona.

“Those moments continue to get me, and I guess it will happen all year long,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to use it as motivation to be back on top.”


STEWART SCRAPE: Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who won at Texas last November on his wall to the title, scraped the wall hard early during Friday’s practice session.

Stewart then switched to a backup Chevrolet, and was able to get that car on the track before the end of practice. The team switched engines between practice and qualifying and will start 29th.

Since the engine switch was made before qualifying, Stewart will not have to go to the back of the field for the green flag Saturday night. But he will still be starting closer to the back than the front.

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