DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. wearily climbed from his car, trudged down pit road and reluctantly stopped to answer a few questions.

He didn’t look, sound or act anything like himself – especially at Daytona International Speedway, a place he has typically been the driver to beat.

Not only has Earnhardt been unseated by Jeff Gordon as the master of restrictor-plate racing, his recent slump has made him an also-ran this season. Making matters worse, Earnhardt hasn’t been able to shake flu-like symptoms that had him retreating to his motorhome between Friday’s on-track activities for the Pepsi 400.

“We’ve struggled a lot this year, you know?” he said.

He definitely struggled in qualifying for Saturday’s race – Earnhardt will start 39th. He also wrecked out of Friday night’s Busch race with under 20 laps to go. He later said the accident was caused when his car blew its motor, and he couldn’t get out of the way of the drivers behind him.

Everybody knows about Earnhardt’s struggles this season. His team is in the dumps, ranked 18th in the points and in danger of not making the Chase for the Championship.

He hasn’t won a race, has led just five laps all season and been plagued by infighting between team members at Dale Earnhardt Inc. And on the eve of the 200th start of his career, he found himself in the most unusual of circumstances: For the first time in five years, he’s not the overwhelming favorite to win at Daytona.

But Junior, who has nine Daytona victories in various series, said he’s still got a chance in Saturday night’s race.

“We’ve got good cars, we can win races here. I think we can get it done,” Earnhardt said. “It’s just harder. We were real dominating here a couple of years ago. We lost a little bit of that edge, but we’ve still got great cars.”

Then he paused and backtracked a moment: “Still got good enough cars to win. That’s all that matters.”

But does he really?

Aside from his third-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Junior has shown very little muscle this year.

He’s got just five top 10s this season and hasn’t contended for a win since the May race at Talladega, the only other restrictor-plate track in the series.

For five years, Earnhardt owned those races. But the field has caught him – Gordon has won four of the past five plate races, including two straight at Daytona.

At Talladega, he led just three laps and knew all day the No. 8 Chevrolet needed a whole lot of luck to win the race.

Even worse, the field knew it, too.

Tony Stewart, a common drafting partner of Earnhardt’s at plate races, admitted that when the two teamed together “we weren’t as potent a combination as we were in the past.”

Asked after the race if Gordon had bypassed him as NASCAR’s best plate racer, Earnhardt winced.

“It’s pretty obvious to me,” he muttered. “Do I even need to answer that question?”

Two months later, there’s little reason to believe things have changed. His performance has gotten noticeably worse in the seven races since, with three finishes of 33rd or worse.

He fired his crew chief midway through May, and after wrecking teammate Michael Waltrip during the Coca-Cola 600, his uncle publicly criticized him. It painted a picture of a chaotic inner-circle at Dale Earnhardt Inc., where everyone was fighting and the cars had no chance of winning.

Although the DEI insiders insist it isn’t that bad, director of competition Tony Eury Sr. (also Junior’s uncle) said Friday that the offseason decision to swap Earnhardt’s crew with Waltrip’s was probably a mistake. The move sent Eury – the only crew chief Earnhardt has ever had – into management and sent car chief Tony Eury Jr. (his cousin) over to Waltrip’s team.

Weary of discussing the swap, Earnhardt ended his short interview session Friday when asked about it.

“That’s history. It’s all in the past,” he said as he pushed through the throng of reporters.

Yes, it’s all about the future now for Earnhardt. Only nobody knows where he, or his team, is headed. Recent comments he made revealed a desire to someday drive the black No. 3 for Richard Childress, who fielded that car for late Dale Earnhardt.

Eury Sr. doesn’t see it happening under the Childress roof.

“He’s always said, ever since his daddy got killed, one of these days he’s gonna drive a 3 car,” Eury said of Junior. “Just a remark he made a long time ago. Someday Richard might give us the number and we’ll run it out of DEI.”

Not feeling well, and worn out by the constant public scrutiny he’s under, Earnhardt was in no mood to discuss his future Friday. But good friend Martin Truex Jr., a rising star at DEI, said everything will work out for NASCAR’s biggest star.

“He’s a pretty tough guy,” Truex said. “He’s not having the season he wants. But he’s keeping his chin up and he’s working hard and he’s going to get back up where he needs to be.”

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