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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking for his first win at Fontana

Earnhardt is off to a good start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, ranked second in the point standings. He hopes to improve on last year's third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway.

March 20, 2013|By Jim Peltz
  • Dale Earnhardt is currently second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings behind Brad Keselowski.
Dale Earnhardt is currently second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings… (Jared Wickerham / Getty…)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying one of the strongest starts of his 14-year career, but can the popular NASCAR driver finally win in Southern California?

Earnhardt mostly has struggled at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana but might have one of his best opportunities to reach Victory Lane this year as the Sprint Cup Series returns Sunday for the Auto Club 400.

Adapting well to the new Gen-6 car used in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt is second this season in the title standings, nine points behind leader and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

Earnhardt has top-10 finishes in each of the first four races, including a sixth last weekend in Bristol, Tenn. Also encouraging for the Hendrick Motorsports driver is that the solid results came on four types of tracks: Daytona (2.5 miles), Phoenix (one mile), Las Vegas (1.5 miles) and Bristol (half-mile).

He and the other Cup drivers will see more variety Sunday on the wide, two-mile Auto Club Speedway, where the cars reach 200 mph on the front straightaway.

"I like that racetrack," said Earnhardt, 38. "I've got a good attitude about it."

Earnhardt, with 19 career victories, has only two wins in the last six-plus years, both at Michigan International Speedway. And though he's off to a good start this year, he's led only 47 laps so far.

Earnhardt's struggles at Auto Club Speedway have been somewhat odd considering the Fontana track is similar to Michigan International.

But Earnhardt finished third in last year's rain-shortened race at Fontana. That was one of only four top-five finishes he has posted in 20 starts at Auto Club Speedway.

Earnhardt said the multiple grooves in the Fontana oval appeal to him. "I like the way the track has gotten really wide and you can run at the bottom or you can run at the top or the middle," he said.

He's also optimistic because of how crew chief Steve Letarte is preparing his No. 88 Chevrolet. "We've got cars that are competing well and running well and showing great speed," Earnhardt said.

All the Cup drivers are still adjusting to the new Gen-6 car, which replaced the Gen-5, initially known as the Car of Tomorrow, or COT.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, got into hot water with NASCAR two weeks ago for grumbling about how the Gen-6 car — at least for now — made it tougher to pass than the Gen-5.

But Earnhardt said, "I seem to like this car and feel better and happier about driving this car than the COT."

Earnhardt hopes his strong start makes it easier for him to qualify for NASCAR's 10-race title playoff, the Chase for the Cup, at the end of the season.

Earnhardt made the Chase last year but missed two of the playoff races after suffering a concussion in a crash.

Before the season-opening Daytona 500 this year, where Earnhardt finished second to teammate and five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt said he felt his first title was within reach.

"If we can step it up another notch, we'd be right there," Earnhardt said. "It isn't going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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