DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. expected to run well at Daytona – even with a fairly new crew chief, a poor qualifying effort and a 24-hour virus.

He’s not so certain about the rest of the season, though.

“They say you kind of carry momentum,” Earnhardt said after finishing third in the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night. “I don’t know if that’s really a possibility or not.”

Earnhardt might have turned his dismal year around at Daytona International Speedway. Then again, running well at a restrictor-plate race – in which Earnhardt typically has success – may change little or nothing for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

And everyone at Dale Earnhardt Inc. knows it.

“The trick is not to get too pleased with yourself when you take Dale Jr. to Daytona and run in the top three,” crew chief Steve Hmiel said. “We needed this one, but we can’t get too excited about it.”

Earnhardt improved from 18th to 16th in the Nextel Cup standings. But he still needs to make up 106 points or move up six spots in the next nine races to earn a berth in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.

His pursuit continues this weekend in Chicago, where he has one top-10 finish in four Cup starts.

“Running strong at Daytona was a given, but it’s important to go to Chicago and do better than people expect us to do,” Hmiel said. “I’m very nervous about it, but I think we’re going to be OK.”

Not everyone would agree.

Earnhardt hasn’t won a race this season, has led just five laps and been plagued by infighting at DEI. Throw out Daytona and Talladega – home of NASCAR’s four restrictor-plate races – and he has just four top 10s in 14 starts.

DEI’s director of competition, Tony Eury Sr., acknowledged last week that the team made a costly mistake by swapping crews and cars between Earnhardt and teammate Michael Waltrip during the offseason.

Eury said the move was detrimental for both race cars, becoming the first team member to publicly call the changes an error.

Earnhardt’s crew, including car chief Tony Eury Jr., took all of his cars and moved to Waltrip’s shop, while Pete Rondeau, who finished 2004 as Waltrip’s crew chief, took his crew and cars and went to Earnhardt’s garage.

The idea was to raise everyone’s game. Instead, it backfired. Rondeau was dismissed in May and replaced on an interim basis by Hmiel, the longtime technical director at DEI.

“I wasn’t happy with the cars when I got there, but these guys have worked their tails off,” Hmiel said. “We built several new cars and updated several more. Our guys have started early and left late, and it’s been tough.

“So we needed something good to happen.”

It did at Daytona, but will it continue?

Hmiel and Earnhardt say they have corrected some flaws in their cars, and recent results might prove them right.

Earnhardt ran well two weeks ago in Sonoma, Calif., and seemed poised for a top-10 finish.

He practiced and qualified well, but then his transmission broke on the opening lap. The problem caused his No. 8 Chevrolet to finish 42nd.

Things certainly improved at Daytona, but then again, Earnhardt has seven victories in various series on the superspeedway and knew he would run well even after he qualified 39th and spent several days battling flu-like symptoms.

He moved into the top 10 midway through the Pepsi 400 and stayed there for good.

“When you’re in a slump of any kind, just to have a top-five run is a big motivator, not only for the driver but for the entire race team,” said race winner Tony Stewart, one of Earnhardt’s closest friends. “Those guys will be excited when they leave here, and that’s something they haven’t been for the whole season really.

“He showed the old form that hasn’t been gone for long, but it’s been gone long enough that everybody makes it seem like it’s been an eternity.”

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