Dale Earnhardt Jr. Qualifies Disappointing 35th At Phoenix International Raceway

Dale Earnhardt Jr. walked from his garage stall and disappeared into his hauler following a disappointing qualifying lap Saturday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway – and didn't emerge for an hour.

Inside the lounge area of the No. 88 team's transporter, Earnhardt Jr. spend time discussing potential changes to his car with crew chief Steve Letarte.

Qualifying 35th for Sunday's race will warrant that kind of long conversation, of course. But in the past, Earnhardt Jr. may have said a few words to his crew chief and returned to his motorhome, communicating about changes via text message.

Not this year – at least so far. Earnhardt Jr. said he wants to be involved in the discussions on a personal level.

"Especially when we don't do well or have a day like today when I didn't perform, I want to be here in case Steve needs to get some information from me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And he can get it from me face-to-face instead of a text message."

It's interesting to note, though, that Earnhardt Jr. does not view his involvement in the conversations as a sign of being more focused; nor does he think it's entirely necessary for success.

"I can do a million different things outside the car and be plugged in every hour of the day, but it really just comes down to whether I can get in there and get the job done," he said. "Today, I didn't get the job done. The car was definitely better than (the lap time showed)."

Basically, the lengthy debrief was a product of wanting to be accountable to his crew chief and his team – even it it's symbolic more than anything.

It's too early to draw any conclusions about how the new No. 88 team will fare together, but Earnhardt Jr. seems to enjoy soaking up Letarte's positive energy. He emerged from the meeting not seeming defeated or discouraged, but focused on improving for Sunday's race.

Can they keep it up?

"We'll just have to see," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Hopefully we can maintain our work ethic and our (desire) to work together every day – want to be together, talk together, work through the car in the same room.

"That's a good thing right now and it's a great feeling. It's productive and we need to keep it that way all year."

But last week, the year got off to a bad start.

Earnhardt Jr. said his wreck and disappointing 24th-place finish in the Daytona 500 capped off a Speedweeks which he called "hellacious" and "a headache."

"I'm really disappointed about the points we lost, the opportunity we had to have a good points day, the opportunity we had to win the race," he said. "We had a good shot at a good finish and a chance to race for the win. But the points are probably the thing that'll end up bothering me the most over the long haul of the season."

He didn't see any of Trevor Bayne's post-500 media blitz, he said, because he was "too busy doing nothing." He didn't envy Bayne – at least when it came to having a week of media obligations all over the country.

"If I had won that Daytona 500, I'd have disappeared on Monday afternoon," he joked. "They'd have never saw me again."

Earnhardt Jr. said he thought NASCAR put on a good, exciting race at Daytona, even with the two-car drafts. But he said the sport was capable of "providing a better product" and added officials and teams should work to put on a "better race overall."

Now, though, the focus is firmly on Phoenix. Though his qualifying effort was far from desirable, Earnhardt Jr. said the team hit on a race setup toward the end of Friday's second practice that seemed promising for Sunday's event.

"We've done OK here this weekend," he said. "We didn't do good here today at all, but yesterday was a work in progress and we feel like we kind of came onto something at the end. We'll just have to see how it races."
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