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Cheers aside, Junior a quieter 3rd

- rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009

BROOKLYN, Mich. – He didn’t exactly sound like a Tibetan monk, but this was a cooler, calmer, wiser Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“I think one of the most important things for me is to stay calm,’’ Earnhardt said, after finishing third in Sunday’s Carfax 400 Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

“I’m my own worst enemy… I’ve been trying to work really hard to be the same person at the end of the race that I am at the start of the race, mentally.’’

Serene has seldom been Earnhardt’s way. He’s known to be a hot head when things go wrong, publicly venting frustration. If his words Sunday counted for anything, he’s beginning to understand how counter-productive that can be. As he put it, the crew’s focus should be on the car, not his emotions.

High as expectations are for Earnhardt – he gets great equipment as a Hendrick Motorsports driver and lives with his father’s legacy – third place was a significant step. This was his first top-five finish since the April race in Talladega and the first time he led a lap since then.

Not that he sees third place in a fuel-mileage race as salvation.

“I don’t get too excited,’’ Earnhardt said. “I want to (contend) every week and throughout the race.’’

Earnhardt jumped into contention the last third of a race broken up by about a half-dozen cautions. Unlike most of the contenders, he wasn’t in danger of running out of fuel. But his car grew tight as he chased Jeff Gordon for third place, so he wasn’t in position to catch Brian Vickers for the lead once Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas.

Still, this represented progress and momentum. And maybe a template for how to lead this team going forward.

“Never worked so hard to run third,’’ Earnhardt said. “You know, we’re getting better as a team. It’s really, really hard to be patient, be mindful and respectful of everybody.

“You know, just hold your tongue every once in a while.’’

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