Dustin Long
Monday April 4th, 2011

His smile bright even in defeat, car owner Rick Hendrick walked down Martinsville Speedway's pit road Sunday to congratulate runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Hendrick moved past the crowd gathered near the start/finish line awaiting winner Kevin Harvick's arrival. Hendrick's walk to greet Earnhardt in the future, though, might not be as far.

"If he can run like that every week, he's going to win races,'' said Hendrick, who watched the final laps atop Earnhardt's pit box. "Mission accomplished.''

Earnhardt's finish is a step forward for a driver who has one Sprint Cup victory in nearly five years. Sunday marked his fifth consecutive finish of 12th or better -- the first time since 2008 he's had such a streak. For a sport that has waited on its most popular driver to help lift it and for fans who have waited for something to cheer about more often, there is hope.

Earnhardt, though, takes a more critical view. Asked what it would take to prove to doubters he's back, Earnhardt said: "I ain't really proved it to myself yet. I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally.''

The defiance is a good sign for Earnhardt fans. He's no longer satisfied with a top-10 finish.

It's a change from earlier this year. After finishing 10th at Phoenix in the season's second race, Earnhardt beamed as he walked through the garage. Sure he wanted to finish better, but the result was a step forward.

Now, a runner-up finish leaves him frustrated.

How he got to this point shows how well he's working with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Hendrick shuffled his driver-crew chief lineups after last season for three of his four teams when champion Jimmie Johnson was his only driver to win a race. Earnhardt was put with Letarte, who had been with Jeff Gordon.

Letarte's enthusiastic, motivating style on the radio resonates with Earnhardt.

"It's almost like he's riding in the car with you, punching you in the shoulder [saying] 'Come on, don't overdrive it. Dig! Dig!''' Earnhardt said earlier this year. "I appreciate that. It makes me want to work. It makes me want to do good.''

The communication between the two has played a role in Earnhardt's improved performance.

"When it comes to driver-crew chief feedback, my theories are it's my responsibility to lead him down the right path and ask the right questions because he's distracted, he's driving, he's busy,'' Letarte said. "It's his responsibility to answer the questions the best to his ability, and if that's an 'I don't know,' that's what I need and he does a very good job of that.''

One of the knocks against Earnhardt in the past was how his car didn't always improve in the second half of the race. In four of the last five races, Earnhardt has gained positions from where he was at the race's midpoint to where he finished. That's a key reason Earnhardt is eighth in points, the highest he's been in nearly a year.

"We've done what we wanted to do,'' Letarte said recently. "We wanted to come and be relevant. Be fast enough that we're just not out there running. We wanted to be in the race.''

Another race, another huddle.

A week after Denny Hamlin, crew chief Mike Ford and others gathered around Hamlin's car after it blew an engine at Auto Club Speedway, Hamlin, Ford and others, including car owner Joe Gibbs this time, met after Sunday's Martinsville race. As they talked outside their team's hauler, a nearby videoboard showed Kevin Harvick celebrating his win with his crew. That's the way Hamlin used to end races at Martinsville.

Poor pit stops and even worse fuel mileage ended his three-race winning streak at the track, leaving him with a 12th-place finish and questions about his team.

Slow pit stops led the team to replace its front tire changer with one from teammate Joey Logano's team during the race. More troubling is the team's poor fuel mileage. Hamlin was the first car to pit during a couple of pit cycles, limiting the team's strategy.

Some might say that fuel mileage cost him the championship last year at Phoenix, in the next-to-last race of the season. Hamlin seemed headed for a second-place finish that day but had to pit late for fuel, while rivals Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick didn't. Hamlin finished 12th and saw his lead on both shrink significantly, heading into the final race of the year.

It left Hamlin with little margin for error at Homestead. That was pivotal when he qualified poorly and had his car damaged early in the race while in traffic. It was too much to overcome, and Johnson celebrated his fifth consecutive title that day.

That makes Hamlin's frustration with fuel mileage issues understandable.

"Our mileage just sucks real bad,'' he said. "It sucked at Phoenix and it sucks here.''

He also wasn't happy about the slow pit stops.

"We need to work on who we're going to have change tires for us,'' he said. "At this point, you either work with what you've got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don't know right now, and we don't know what to do.''

There is one thing that Hamlin, who is 19th in points, is certain about. "All of the things we need to do to be a championship team, we don't have all those parts together right now,'' he said.

A week after Kevin Harvick's win at Auto Club Speedway, things were not going well. He didn't win the go-kart race he annually hosts near his home the week of the Martinsville races. He didn't win the Camping World Truck race at Martinsville. Early in Sunday's race, it didn't look as if he had a chance to win. Starting ninth, Harvick backpedaled 14 spots within the first 30 laps.

"I can't even drive it,'' Harvick radioed his crew. "The thing is just junk. Junk from lap one.''

He would fight the car for most of the first 200 laps but his luck changed with an unofficial halftime break in the race. NASCAR stopped the event for nearly 25 minutes to clear the debris and repair the wall after Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne wrecked. That break turned Harvick's race around.

Crew chief Gil Martin huddled his team at the bottom of the pit box during the red flag and began brainstorming what could be done to make the car better. The break allowed Martin and his team to problem solve without being distracted by what he called "the chaos of running each lap."

"Everybody just came up with some ideas on what we needed to do, and we incorporated all of them and it came together.''

It took some time for the team to make all the changes and Harvick to move forward, but once he did, nobody could keep up with him. He passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead with four laps to go.

Harvick's second victory of the season nearly assures him a spot in the Chase. With the top 10 in points making the Chase -- Harvick is fifth -- the final two spots go to the drivers with the most wins who are between 11th and 20th in points. Even if Harvick falls out of the top 10, his two wins should be enough to earn a wild-card spot.

"I'll take our chances on making the Chase with the wild card stuff,'' Harvick said. "Here we are six weeks into the season, and I feel like we can take more chances than we did last year. I feel like we can really push the limits on racing.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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