Dale Earnhardt Jr. Atop the NASCAR standings...but it's a long time from here till November
By Mike Mulhern
Okay, everything is in place: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is finally winning again, and contending for wins, consistently, and he's not only in the NASCAR championship hunt but atop the Sprint Cup standings, as the stock car tour heads down the stretch of the regular season toward the September-Richmond playoff cut.
Can Junior actually win this year's championship?
Earnhardt, more than 11 years after the death of his legendary father, a seven-time champion, is at last in good position to make a run at the title that has eluded him all these years.
He's prime, primed too, and looking darned good out on the track.
It's everything this sport has been looking for out of him for so many years, as the new standard bearer of the Earnhardt family legacy.
Now a key question: How much will it really help the sport?
Or did the painfully long drought simply drain too much energy from the Earnhardt mystique?
Just how much does Junior really move the needle any more?
He turns 38 in two months. If Earnhardt is to make something big happen, this looks like the moment in history when he has to make it happen.
As the promise of 2008 faded into weeks and months of questions, through winless 2009, winless 2010, winless 2011, the mental pounding continued relentlessly: when will Junior win again?
Now the question is can Dale Earnhardt Jr. rally the troops, rally the sport?
Can the once vaunted Earnhardt Nation rally too? Or have too many just moved on?
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. rally Earnhardt Nation? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In the nearly 12 years since Dale Sr.'s death, his own history -- the memories of so many glorious battles, the dramatic wins, the heartbreaking losses -- has faded, as fans have come and gone, as the sport has changed in so many ways.
How many in the stands here for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 ever even saw Earnhardt in the game...like that day he tricked Alan Kulwicki with a rock-barrage over the tunnel turn that last lap....or the day that Jeremy Mayfield pulled an audacious bump-and-run in turn three the last lap to beat Earnhardt?
Time ages memories till they all but go to black.
The son of a legend, in any field, never has it easy.
And only one man knows just how much pressure there is when you're the son of the Big E... the Intimidator, the man in black, the man you most feared when he appeared in your rear view.
Carrying the Earnhardt name has at times seemed as much a curse as a plus.
The elder Earnhardt never really made it very easy on Junior either. And neither did Teresa, who once said her step-son had to decide if he wanted to be a rock star or a race driver.
Indeed Junior, for several years, appeared to focusing on being NASCAR's party king.
However the past few years he's changed, become much more focused on his racing, much more diligent in his game. Credit crew chief Steve Letarte, Mr. Positive, for some of that.
Letarte, a Rick Hendrick man since he was a teenager, couldn't quite get Jeff Gordon over the hump and back in the game during their years together (2006-2010). But Letarte has been charmed this season with Earnhardt, their second together.
Steve Letarte (R): the man who is bringing Dale Earnhardt Jr. into championship contention (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That June Michigan 400 victory, which ended a 143-race drought, stretching back four years, was solid. Not a gas mileage win, like that last one, in 2008. Solid.
And he easily could have won more already, Daytona, Richmond, Martinsville. And if top-fives are traditional indicators of possible wins, well, Earnhardt has an amazing nine of those. Think about that for a moment -- of the year's first 20 Cup events, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished top-five in nine of them.
Guess it really does help a man to be working out of the same two-team shop as the great Chad Knaus, the five-time championship crew chief gunning to take his sixth this fall with Jimmie Johnson.
And Earnhardt isn't stroking. He's led 218 laps.
More amazing than all that is he has finished on the lead lap in every single race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't a season this good since, really, 2004.
This is the way it was supposed to be when Earnhardt first joined Rick Hendrick in 2008.
Remember how it all began, back in 2008 at Daytona? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So now that Earnhardt has this world on a string, what's he going to do with it?
Sure, the line -- especially after that Brickyard 400 victory -- is for Jimmie Johnson to become Mr. Six-Time Nov. 18th.
So let's size up Earnhardt versus Johnson so far: in the 20 races, Earnhardt finished ahead of Johnson in exactly 10 of them. They've split it, 10-10. But in the last six -- Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona, New Hampshire, and Indianapolis -- Earnhardt has outscored Johnson 4-2.
On the more ominous side, since winning Michigan, Earnhardt hasn't let a lap.
"We had a good enough car to win here last time. Fuel mileage, and the fact we would have made it (without Letarte's late race pit call for more gas, which Letarte is still kicking himself over).... we gave up an opportunity to race for the win by coming down pit road.
"You don't get too many opportunities to race for wins with a car like that.
"Hopefully we'll get another crack at it."
The fateful pit stop here in June that cost Earnhardt a shot at the win (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then it's Watkins Glen. Road courses haven't been his forte; 23rd at Sonoma...
"Me and a road course, it's a lottery," Earnhardt says with a laugh.
"In 2008 we started up front and led the first 30 laps or so. I know I can go around there.
"That place is a lot easier than Sonoma, a lot less technical. It's just 'straightaway,' 'turn,' 'straightaway,' 'turn.'
"The gains we made this week I could see on the stop-watch and on the track.
"I didn't like the car we tested at Road Atlanta earlier this year...and when we went to Sonoma I had the same issues with the car.
"This week we had the same problems...and we made a lot of changes; revolutionized the way the car drove.
"I don't particularly look forward to Sonoma and Watkins Glen as much as ovals, but I'm excited about Watkins Glen this trip."
For Earnhardt (88), Sonoma was the low point of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But the championship...how does Earnhardt himself feel about all this?
Is he gearing up for a championship run? Or has he, just by making it back to the top of the standings, achieved the goal?
Hard to gauge, really.
Watching and listening and talking with him, Earnhardt almost seems finally at some peace with himself, regardless of how the title chase plays out.
Undoubtedly, after so much hope and hype and disappointment these past few seasons, he's probably bracing himself -- like Mark Martin used to do -- against more disappointment. Enjoy what you've got while you've got it.
Of course that's not the way to win a championship.
But then the championship run doesn't begin until Sept. 16th, in Chicago. No point in burning out or peaking too early.
So let's let Junior enjoy the moment.
Earnhardt, winning again, after a long, long drought (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
After all it hasn't been all that long ago that people were dismissing Earnhardt as a player anymore, wondering if he'd ever even win another tour event, much less challenge for the title.
Is this then the moment of vindication?
"It didn't really bother me," Earnhardt says about the doubters.
"I was worried about my own situation --what I needed to do to get it turned around.
"But I do feel a little vindicated, to the people that considered I wouldn't ever be competitive again.
"Aside from winning a few more races, I don't know how much more of a statement I could have made then what we've made this year.
"But that's not as important to me as trying to make the best of this year -- with more wins and a championship.
"The closer we get to the chase, the more real the opportunity seems. All that stuff comes to the forefront. And I know what I need to be focusing on... and it's not whether I got back at somebody or vindicated myself as much as focusing on what we are trying to do today, this weekend, next weekend..."
Leading the NASCAR points coming out of the Brickyard 400 hasn't been a leading indicator for the championship. Still, if you're in the lead, everybody else is playing catch-up. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now the tour points leader coming out of Indianapolis hasn't gone on to win the championship since Jimmie Johnson did that in 2006.
In 2007 Jeff Gordon lost in the playoffs, in 2008 Kyle Busch lost in the playoffs, in 2009 Tony Stewart lost in the playoffs, in 2010 Kevin Harvick lost in the playoffs, in 2011 Carl Edwards lost in the playoffs.
The season, remember, is just past the halfway mark, and there are another 16 races to go.
"A lot of people downplay it," Earnhardt says of the points lead at this point in the year.
"The guys saying that may have been battling for it more often than I have. It's been a long time since I was in the points lead. It's been forever.
"I can't even recall the last time we were in the conversation about the championship.
"So these things are really validating the work we've done.
"We were in Road Atlanta Wednesday (testing for next week's race at Watkins Glen), and it was just as miserable as it could be. It was about similar (in heat and humidity) to Kentucky -- where it just gassed the heck out of you. But we worked hard and found some speed."
Big picture: "We're running well, but we need to win more races. We need to be the fastest car more often.
"We've only been the fastest guy probably once or twice this year. To be able to contend for the championship our team needs another 10 to 15 percent."
Earnhardt says he sometimes reflects on his career and almost feels like Sisyphus: "I've worked my tail off for most of my career with little gains, and at times no gains.
"This year it's been awesome to go to a track on a Wednesday or Tuesday (for testing) and work with Steve and come away really happy. I'm enjoying that.
"The points lead: I'll say what everybody else says -- it's not the championship, and going to Vegas as the top dog. But it does feel good 20 races into the year to have put more points on the board than any other team."
Just what is Steve Letarte's magic? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)