FONTANA, Calif. -- On the heels of his second-place finish at the Daytona 500, fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr., had to be feeling pretty good about their hero. This is the year that Junior feeds their need for greatness. The problem, of course, is that Daytona is followed by a race at Auto Club Speedway, and the California track might as well be composed of radiation for NASCAR's favorite driver.
Earnhardt finished 32nd, a disappointing 12 laps behind Auto Club 500 winner and Hendrick Racing teammate Jimmie Johnson. He lost those laps because of a mechanical issue at the rear of his car, either an axle or a drive plate.
"I guess Jimmie had the same problem last week," Earnhardt said. "I think it's a material issue. They got to go through the batch and find out what's going on."
But the reality is that Earnhardt was never a factor before he drove his car into the garage on Lap 182 for repairs; a lap earlier, he had been 20th. He was running 18th on Lap 130 while his teammates were 1, 2 and 10; four laps later, Earnhardt was assessed a drive-through penalty that dropped him to 30th.
If there was anything telling about the state of Junior's team, it could be noticed from the race's outset. He and teammate Jeff Gordon started alongside each other on Row 14, Earnhardt 27th and Gordon 28th.
But the drivers had vastly different days, at least until Gordon developed engine issues and fell to 20th overall. At the drop of the green flag, Gordon moved to the front while Earnhardt stayed put. By Lap 31 Gordon was in the top 10. On Lap 50, Gordon was eighth, Earnhardt 22nd.
The difference between the two?
"Two totally different teams," Earnhardt said after climbing from his car.
Aren't you sharing information?
"Of course we are," he said. "I can't build the cars, what do you want me to do? I just drive them."
Fans can draw their own conclusions, but many -- including another Hendrick teammate, Mark Martin (who finished fourth) -- have gone out of their way to prop up Earnhardt to the media after the son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt finished 25th in his second year with the Hendrick juggernaut.
Junior's second-place finish at Daytona was a good start, but he is usually better in restrictor plate races. The Fontana track was a chance to show things were going to be different.
They aren't. Not yet.
In 17 Cup starts, he has finished 19th or worse 10 times. In his last 13 races he has two top fives, two 11ths, and misery. Dating back to the 2007 season, he has finished 32, 25, 39, 11, 40, 5 and 40.
"What can you do," Earnhardt said of his struggles on this two-mile oval. "You just go home."
Actually, Earnhardt seemed encouraged somewhat by the performance of his No. 88 Chevrolet as the race wore on, and that he should have finished near Greg Biffle, who passed Scott Speed on the last lap to finish 10th.
"We weren't that great . . . The last half of the race was definitely better for us," Earnhardt said. "I felt at the end we were moving forward better than the other guys around us that had been out front all day that got the wave around. Looking at the guys that finished around the top 10, we should have been right around that 16 car, I think.
"It was a tough day."
It sure was.