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Earnhardt off to shaky start in 2007 Nextel Cup season

MIKE HARRIS • Mar 8, 2007 at 4:51 AM

This is not the kind of start to the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season that Dale Earnhardt Jr. envisioned.

Heading into Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt has failed to finish the first two Cup races of the season and is 40th in the points, two spots behind Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Martin Truex Jr.

"We're not happy about it, but we're keeping our heads up," Earnhardt said. "We've had some rough starts before and came back strong. We were 38th in the points after two races in 2003, and we came back to finish third.

"It seems like we always get better as the year goes on. Don't forget, we had back-to-back last-place finishes in the middle of the summer last year and dropped out of the top 10 in points, but we fought back into the Chase when we needed to."

Still, Earnhardt can't be feeling comfortable after crashing out and finishing 32nd in the Daytona 500, then winding up 40th with a blown engine at California.

"We found out what caused the engine failure at California, and our guys have been busting their butts to make sure we don't have that problem again," Earnhardt said. "The most positive thing we took from California is that we had a car that was really fast."

Earnhardt is not alone among NASCAR's stars who have struggled at the start of this season.

Defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, usually a fast starter, is 15th in the standings. Perennial contender Greg Biffle is 17th and two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is 21st, 149 points behind surprising series leader Mark Martin.

It appeared Stewart turned things around in California with an eighth-place run after finishing last at Daytona. But he is looking at the Las Vegas race as a pivotal one, particularly since the 1.5-mile LVMS oval has been reworked with higher banking and reconfigured turns, making it a much faster track.

"These early races teach you very quickly where your program is compared to the competition," Stewart said. "If your cars are good, you'll run well at California, Vegas, Atlanta, Texas and so on.

"Everybody wants to know where they stack up and shake out right now. If you can get off to a good start, it shows that your program is really where it needs to be. This is a huge week."

It's also the third of five races in which last year's car owner points determine the 35 entries guaranteed starting spots and those that must get in on qualifying speed.

The new Toyota teams are keeping a close eye on those numbers.

Right now, the only Toyota drivers guaranteed a spot in the lineup each week are Dave Blaney, whose Bill Davis Racing No. 22 entry was among the top 35 last year, and Dale Jarrett, who has made each of the first two races with the former Cup champion's provisional. And that could change soon.

Under a new NASCAR rule, Jarrett only can use that provisional to make the lineup four more times in 2007, while Blaney is 42nd in the points so far, with three races until the current top 35 goes into effect.

Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion, has gotten off to a decent start and is 28th in the points going into Las Vegas. Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Waltrip and rookie David Reutimann are not in such good shape, though. Waltrip, who failed to qualify at California, is 46th in the points, while Reutimann is 41st.

Blaney's teammate, Jeremy Mayfield, has yet to qualify for a race this season. Neither has rookie A.J. Allmendinger, who drives one of two Toyotas for the new Team Red Bull. His teammate, Brian Vickers, raced at California, finishing 10th and moving up to 34th in the points.

"It's not time to panic yet, (but) it almost is," said Waltrip, who has bitten off a huge chunk as a new team owner with a new manufacturer. "We're going to make a few subtle changes and ramp up everything we do. Hopefully, we'll show some steady improvement.

"Toyota needs to continue to work their rear ends off on their end and we're going to continue to work our rear ends off on our end."

Stewart, who failed to make the Chase last year and is eager to see improvement this season, said you can't go into races this early in the year thinking about points.

"As a team, you can't let it be a distraction," he said. "We have to go out and run every lap as hard as possible and not worry about it. This team has always performed well when the pressure is on, and I expect nothing less this week."

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