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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2013 intentions clear from start

Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013

Dale Earnhardt Jr. prefers not to look back.

But he does like to remember.

There were many positives to recall from the 2012 Sprint Cup season, including his first victory in four years, a second consecutive appearance in the Chase and a feeling he and his Hendrick Motorsports team could contend for a championship.

Earnhardt’s title hopes were dashed during October when he was forced to miss two races to recover from a concussion.

While his chance at a first series championship was lost, his desire and belief it still can happen were not.

Earnhardt’s quest will resume at 1 p.m. Sunday at Daytona International Speedway with qualifying for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500, the season opener.

“To find motivation and excitement, I look back on how well we performed throughout the year,” Earnhardt said last week. “Things like how we were leading the points and how things were going mid-point in the season. How strong we were in the summer, which had been a terrible time for me historically.

“It was a disappointment not to finish as well as we had hoped in the Chase and really go for the championship. We felt like we were a strong enough team at certain parts of the year to definitely do that.

“We definitely have some unfinished business and feel like we can put forth the same effort and the same results this year.”

With his first victory in hand since the 2008 season, Earnhardt entered the 2012 Chase as the eighth seed but only nine points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

Although not performing as well as he had earlier in the season, Earnhardt still was in the hunt for the title after the Oct. 7 race at Talladega, Ala., when he got caught up in a last-lap accident and finished 20th.

He left Talladega 11th in points but with something far worse – lingering effects from a concussion, which forced him to miss races 31 and 32 of the season.

It actually was Earnhardt’s second concussion within six weeks. The first, during a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway, went undiagnosed until he was evaluated by doctors after the Talladega accident.

Earnhardt returned to his No. 88 Chevrolet for the Oct. 28 race at Martinsville, Va.

“He absolutely should have gotten out of the car,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “We probably should not have let him back in the car the race after (his testing accident).

“If I had known how bad he was hurt, we would not have let him go back racing. We did the right thing and I feel confident this will be his year. He was that close last year to being there.

“If you can run top three or four or five every week, you win one of these things.”

The months and weeks leading to the Talladega wreck had left Earnhardt feeling pretty well about his chances at a first Cup title.

The start of the Chase – which featured finishes of eighth, 13th and 11th – were not as good as he hoped, but Earnhardt still remained in the thick of the title hunt.

“With the way we ran last year, I was getting a real sense that we were starting to compete at that level as a team that had the opportunity to win the championship,” he said.

“It got really exciting. I think we have an opportunity. Our time is now.”

Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, is on the same page with his driver.

“Well, none of us are reversing in age,” Letarte said of the need to cash in on title shots. “Every year you have top-notch equipment that you don’t end up as a championship contender, you miss an opportunity.

“I’m very proud to make the Chase, but the next step is to make the Chase and stay in it to get to the last three or four races and have a legitimate shot. When there is an opportunity to pick up and run with the ball, you have to be there.”

Earnhardt and his team plan to “be there” from the start this year.

Despite a new model car – and with it a little less understanding of how it will race – Earnhardt never has felt better about claiming his first championship.

“We have a chance if we can just find some more pieces and keep improving. We have steadily gotten better over the last couple of years,” he said.

“If we can continue to do that and keep applying ourselves and keep working and not get complacent about certain things, then we can be one of those teams that are sitting there in Homestead (Fla.) with a shot at it.

“I really believe that.”

There is an army of fans who would like to as well.

Daytona 500 qualifying

Only the first two spots will be determined in time trials Sunday. All other spots will be determined in two qualifying races Thursday.

Two-lap time trials: 1 p.m., TV: Fox

Qualifying Duel races: First race at 2 p.m. Thursday (SPEED)

Daytona 500: Next Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Fox

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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