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Sonoma not a scary stop anymore

6/25/2004

Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows his fans are nervous. Heck, he knows his team is a little bit nervous.

The driver of the No. 8 Chevy remains undaunted, though. Sure, he lost the points lead last weekend and this weekend heads to a road course, a type of venue he abhorred when he first started racing Cup. But this is no usual season, and Junior's actually feeling pretty confident.

So don't expect the begninning of a downward spiral. Not for this year's Bud team.

"I think everybody can tell things are different this year," he said. "I think we feel it, too."

For one thing, losing the points lead isn't a big crush because points leads don't mean as much this season. The top 10 will have their points leads reset to draw everyone closer in preparation for a 10-race shootout for the title.

For another, Junior's gotten the hang of the road courses, so this weekend may very well be an opportunity for him to score a series-leading 12th top 10.

"Write this down," Junior said. "I'm excited about going to a road course."

Last season, Junior posted his first top 10 at a road course when he finished third at Watkins Glen. In the other road course race last year, he missed a top 10 by one spot. It was a vast improvement from his mostly sub-top 20 performances at the road courses.

"We've come a long way on the road courses," he said. "We just missed a top 10 here last year, then had a great run at Watkins Glen. I used to dread certain tracks on the schedule, but the team is getting better all the time and I feel a lot more comfortable at most of the places I used to hate."

And this is one of them. And it isn't just because his team has gotten its act together and come through in the pits and car set ups. It's also because Junior recognized that he wasn't as proficient at throwing the car right and left, and he did something about it.

He studied.

Junior watched the Series' top road racers, from hired guns like Boris Said to talented regulars like Robby Gordon and Jeff Gordon. He also got an up-close lesson from Tony Stewart, who was Junior's teammate for this year's 24 Hours of Daytona.

"I appreciate the opportunity and we're making the most of it," Junior said back in February, just after getting out of the car for his portion of the race and handing over the wheel to Stewart. "... I've learned so much just by watching these guys. I was already excited to go back to the road courses, but now I can't wait to see how we'll do."

"My confidence level is higher after last year's performance and then running in the 24 Hours of Daytona," Junior said this week. "We've tested a lot to make sure we're ready to go."

Only seven points separate him from the points lead, a distance easily made up in one race. But as much as Junior would love to come out of Sonoma with a high finish, he isn't too concerned with regaining the points lead.

"At this stage, with the new point system, (leading the points is) mainly about bragging rights," he said. "It's great to be the leader, and we want to be the leader."

But right now, Junior's more concerned with getting a high finish just to boost the confidence of his team.

Last weekend at Michigan, the team finished 21st. That followed a 19th-place effort five races prior. That still leaves Junior with an average finish of 8.5, higher than his goal of 12 -- which he believes would be good enough to vie for the title. Still, the season isn't even half over, so he wants to correct whatever bug is eating at the No. 8 team before it becomes a real problem.

"We've struggled as a team for several weeks and yet we're still less than 10 points behind (the leader)," he said. "We're not very happy or satisfied right now. We're a hard bunch to please. But nobody's going to work harder."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.