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Junior could see a breakthrough with second trip to Daytona


MOORESVILLE, North Carolina -- It's time for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' second trip to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. It's the annual Independence Day Weekend shootout, a contest under the lights that's bound to include fireworks both on and off the track.

It could also be the race that propels Dale Earnhardt Jr. back into contention for a coveted spot in the Chase.

After finishing eighth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt is just three points shy of the 12th and final Chase spot.

"I think it is a good start to a turning point," Earnhardt said after Sunday's New Hampshire race. "I like running here and I traditionally feel like I am a top-10 here every time I show up. We worked on the car and felt like where we ended practice was a good spot. The car was really fast at the start of the race. The first run not so good, but the second run, we really got going. We started adjusting on it and we just lost that little pep it had that drove it up to the top-10. But, it was still good enough to hang on."

It's no secret that NASCAR would love for Earnhardt to be one of the drivers to make the Chase cut -- after all, he is easily the most popular driver in the series and his legion of fans would finally be able to watch him compete for the Cup for the first time since 2008.

That the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet heads to Daytona -- a track where he does well at even when he isn't having a good year -- could be the start of something big.

It was at Daytona in February when the son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt drove from 10th to second in the final two laps -- a second attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish. That was supposed to be the race that catapulted Earnhardt back to relevance but he quickly sank back to mediocrity, finishing 32nd the next weekend at Fontana and 16th at Las Vegas.

But since a 19th-place finish at Pocono earlier this month, Earnhardt has climbed his way back to relevance with a seventh-place at Michigan, an 11th at Sonoma and Sunday's eighth-place at Loudon.

"I was real glad the car ran good," Earnhardt said. "Drove it up there. The car was excellent the first half of the race and then we sort of struggled with it the last half of the race, but we still had a good finish. It still was a competitive car. But it was really good about the one-third mark of the race. We are real proud of our run today and it is a good move for us in the points."

Considering that he is returning with Hendrick Motorsports and two wins under his Daytona belt (in 2001 and in 2004's Daytona 500), there is no reason to think that Earnhardt fans won't have an excuse to shoot off a few bottle rockets or run around with some sparklers afterwards.

There is no doubt that IZOD IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick is the center of attention, but when she shows up at a Nationwide Series race the attention she gets seems to be for all the wrong reasons.

True, she should be commended for at least trying out NASCAR to see if she can master it, but once again the level of attention she gets compared to where she finishes is out of whack.

It didn't take long in Saturday's race for Patrick's No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet to hit the wall after just seven laps when she made contact with "Old Man" Morgan Shepherd's car. It was debatable whether it was Shepherd's fault, but in Patrick's mind he was the guilty party, criticizing the 68-year-old driver over the team's radio, bumping into him on a restart and coming down with him to pit road.

Patrick would finish 30th, five laps down to race-winner Kyle Busch.

While she can claim New Hampshire as her best Nationwide Series finish so far, that's not saying very much. She was 35th at Daytona, 31st at Fontana and 36th at Las Vegas. The only race where she didn't crash was at Fontana but she ended that race three laps down to the winner, Busch.

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One day, Patrick may get the hang of it in NASCAR, but until then she doesn't merit the amount of attention that continues to follow her.

She is easily the best female driver in major racing, but her expertise is in the No. 7 Andretti Autosport IndyCar, not the No. 7 Nationwide Series ride. When she races like she did at Texas Motor Speedway on June 5 -- the best complete race of her career when she finished second to Ryan Briscoe -- then let's praise her.

But she got practically as much attention for finishing 30th on Saturday as Busch did for winning the race.

The lure of big money may ultimately lead her into NASCAR full time. But if it were for the love of racing, she would be better off to stay put in IndyCar, where she will run in Sunday's Camping World Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International.

Fear not, NASCAR fans -- Patrick returns to Nationwide on July 9 in the Dollar General 300 at Chicagoland Speedway.

For those who thought Jimmie Johnson was in a slump, think again.

Sunday's victory at New Hampshire was his second Cup win in as many races and tied him with Denny Hamlin for a series-leading five victories this season. The win could be very important for Johnson as he hopes to drive his car No. 48 to a record fifth-straight Cup championship in 2010.

Johnson moved to second in the standings, 105 points behind points leader Kevin Harvick heading to Daytona.

"I don't think we really went anywhere," Johnson said in mocking reference to his so-called "slump." "There are certain tracks that we're looking for a little speed at and that's just the way it always goes. And I found that on those tracks, I was just driving over the limit of the vehicle and over my head thinking -- a little cocky, thinking I can slide this car around all day long and get away with it, and it bit me a couple times. So that led to the poor finishes."

But not everything was looking up for Johnson, as he got knocked out of the lead by Kurt Busch late in the race.

"Inside the car, I was livid," Johnson said. "I was so pissed off that he (Busch) got into me, and I almost lost it at one point. I was just kind of sliding and it took off and the tires started chattering and that's usually when you're turned around. Once I got back going and I was still in second, I thought, `man, I hope I catch you. I look forward to this if I catch you,' and that was my incentive was not necessarily to pass him. All I had to do was get to his bumper and I was going to win the race, if he gives me that option by moving me out of the way.

"I just sat there as I put together a good lap or two, I saw that I caught him and this is going to work out just fine, I'll get there with about one or two to go and if I get to the bumper, I know I'm going to make the turn; I'm not sure he is going to. I just took that approach and got in there and of course I calmed down with us I got to him and just gave him a nudge and went on my way but the laps leading up to that, I had great visions of a huge, spectacular crash."

Johnson has often been criticized for having a "corporate" personality but deep inside a competitive fire burns in perhaps the best driver of his era.

As reported last week, IndyCar is heading back to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2011, giving a much-needed short-oval to the series schedule. The race is set for July 31, 2011 and will be the first time that IndyCar has competed at New Hampshire since Tony Stewart drove to victory in 1998.

"We're pleased to restore an Indy car short oval to the schedule to further increase our diversity of venues," said Randy Bernard, chief executive officer of the Indy Racing League. "As evident last weekend in Iowa, our cars produce tremendous racing on short ovals. Additionally, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is strategically located in the Northeast, which fills a geographical gap in our schedule. I have to thank Bruton Smith and Jerry Gappens for giving us a great opportunity here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway."

Two-time IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti ran some demonstration laps during pre-race ceremonies.

"This is three year deal in the making," said Jerry Gappens executive vice president and general manager of the speedway. "As an Indiana native and a fan of open-wheeled racing, I strongly believe that the people of New Hampshire will embrace this new breed of speed much like they do NASCAR."

Sebastian Vettel was victorious at Valencia, site of Sunday's European Grand Prix Formula One race. The Red Bull driver started on the pole and his second win this season places him third in the F1 standings, 12 behind the leader, Lewis Hamilton.

The race included a massive wreck which saw Mark Webber crash into the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, launching Webber's car into the air before landing upside-down on the nose and roll bar.

"I was worried about any bridges or things that I could hit in the air," Webber said. "I knew I was a long way up. The car, thank God, was very safe. I'm okay. I lose some points but in the end, when you're up there, you're not worried about points. It was my Monaco and Barcelona winning chassis and one which has secured a lot of pole positions, so the chassis has been good to me. I remain incredibly positive, we go on, it's half way through the championship.

"Bloody hell, let's get on with it."

Vettel and Webber are teammates at Red Bull and the winning driver was relieved when he got the news over the team's radio that Webber was unhurt.

"Motor sport is dangerous," Vettel said. "It's what is written on every ticket...there's always a bit of a risk. I think it shows how high speeds are and what can happen, so you should never lose respect."

"Kyle (Busch) didn't have anything to do with that. That was all me. He got loose off of (Turn) 2 and I drove underneath him and I just underestimated the amount of grip I would have getting into (Turn) 3 and the back came around and I corrected and he was there. So it was more of an incident with me and he paid the price for it. He didn't do anything wrong." -- Jeff Burton accepting the blame for a crash with Kyle Busch late in Sunday's NASCAR race at New Hampshire.

"We all saw it -- I got wrecked. It was a product of good, hard racing there at the end of the race. A guy on no tires trying to make it all with what he's got and we screwed up. We didn't have the right front underneath the car there at the end and I washed up the track. In the previous corner Kurt (Busch) got by me. Went down into turn three and (Jeff) Burton got loose underneath me and we wrecked. That's all there is to it." -- Kyle Busch's take on the crash.

While NASCAR Sprint Cup returns to Daytona International Speedway for the annual Coke Zero 400, the IndyCar Series "hits the road" by returning to Watkins Glen International for Sunday's Camping World Grand Prix. It's a contrast in two types of racing as NASCAR slaps on the restrictor-plates, leading to hair-raising action at its most storied track, while IndyCar returns to what the Europeans call "proper racing" on a traditional road course, which used to host the United States Grand Prix Formula One race.