Friday April 9th, 2010

Even by the standards of a sailor or an inmate at your local lockup, it was an impressive display of cursing.

After Dale Earnhardt Jr. was busted for speeding on pit road at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 21, Little E let loose a river of expletives over the radio. In a 90-second exchange with his crew chief Lance McGrew, Earnhardt pleaded his case, dropping 17 bleep-worthy words.

"Running my mouth, that's my pop-off valve," Earnhardt said a few days after his rant at Bristol, where he bounced back from the penalty to finish seventh. "It gives me a little bit of relief so I could get back to what I was doing."

Was Earnhardt speeding at Bristol? Yes, even he eventually acknowledged that. But what this episode really revealed was that this season Earnhardt obviously gives -- to borrow one of his favorite words -- a sh--.

He'll be the first to admit that in the past his concentration and attention have waned at certain points in races, possibly explaining why he often lost track position at the end of long runs last year. That's not happening in 2010. He appears re-engaged, re-energized, rededicated, and there's only one person who is primarily responsible for this: McGrew.

"I think sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone and be challenged, and that's what I'm going to do with Dale this year," McGrew told me at Daytona back in February. "We're friends, but we're also going to be professional and push each other. That's what you have to do to make it in this sport. I want to get him back into the Chase and back contending for championships."

Can Earnhardt do that this season? It's early, but so far, so good for the No. 88 team. At the season opener in Daytona, he moved from 11th to second on the final lap, blasting through holes in traffic that didn't appear to be there. This was Earnhardt at his finest, a reminder that though he hasn't finished higher than 12th in the points in the last three seasons, he still has won 18 career Cup races.

"Damn, that was fun," he told me as we walked through the Daytona darkness to the infield media center after the race. "I wanted the win, but this is a good start."

The next three races took place at intermediate tracks: Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta. These types of tracks have been Junior's downfall the past few years, but he's showing improvement. At Fontana he came in 32nd, in Vegas he was 16th and in Atlanta he wound up 15th. Junior didn't lead laps in any of these races, but at various times he did run in the lead pack.

These aren't Jimmie Johnson-esque performances, but they represent a major gain from last season. Keep in mind that in Earnhardt's last four starts on intermediate-length tracks (meaning, one to two miles in length) in 2009, his average finish was a paltry 29.3. So, yes, his early-season performance at these venues represents a big improvement.

After Atlanta, the circuit moved to Bristol, where Junior came in seventh. He followed that up with a 15th place run at Martinsville Speedway on March 28. Now, six races into the season, Junior is 10th in the points, which is six places higher in the standings than he was at this juncture in 2009.

The next four races will be especially telling for Earnhardt: Phoenix, Texas, Talladega and Richmond. He has 11 career wins on these four tracks, and if he can emerge from Richmond in the top five in the standings -- and I think he will -- then he'll be well on his way to his first Chase since 2008.

"Give Lance and I time together this year before you judge us," Earnhardt told me earlier this season. "Just give us time."

As Earnhardt said these words, it almost seemed like he was sitting on a secret that he was just dying to spill. He's my pick to take the checkers on Saturday night at Phoenix, where he has two career wins. And if he does, be sure to keep the kids off Junior's radio frequency after the checkered flag waves. When he's either really happy or really angry, Little E's most colorful of language tends to fly from his lips. As he said, it's his release, and it's been 63 races since he's had a joyous release on Victory Lane.

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