He called his shot.
The scene was last Saturday afternoon in the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The second and final practice session had just ended, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood next to his No. 88 Chevy and envisioned how he'd perform the following day in the Brickyard 400. "We may not qualify all that well and it's really hard to pass here, but I'm very confident that we have a top-five car," he said. "That's the thing about this entire year: We've had great speed. We'll be just fine."
After qualifying 22nd, Earnhardt calmly picked his way through the field. I was embedded with the No. 88 team for the entire weekend for an upcoming magazine feature on Earnhardt -- I also spent time with him at Hendrick Motorsports and we hung out at his North Carolina home this week -- and at Indy I can report that Earnhardt didn't appear to make a single significant mistake behind the wheel. He was patient, his car control was excellent, he never missed his marks when gliding into his pit stall, and he was aggressive only when he needed to be, such as when Denny Hamlin tried to jump in front of him on the final restart but Earnhardt held his ground on the low-line. He finished fourth at Indy and, for the first time since 2004, ascended to the top of the point standings. No question, Earnhardt's rise and re-birth is the biggest story of the 2012 NASCAR season.
Earnhardt, at age 37, is officially in the Second Act of his career. And I think his strong season will continue on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, where in June he led a career-best 36 laps and finished eighth. Yet that was deceiving, because Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief, called for four tires on a late pit stop while other teams only took two, which caused Earnhardt to lose valuable track position. Both Earnhardt and Letarte feel very confident heading back to Pennsylvania. "We'll be good," Earnhardt told me with a grin.
Career statistics don't apply to Earnhardt this season. Consider: Earnhardt has typically struggled over the months of June, July and August. Between 1999 and 2011, his average finish in the summer months was 16.77. But so far in June and July Earnhardt's average finish has been a stellar 7.88.
So past hasn't been prologue for Earnhardt, not this year. And it says here the No. 88 team will continue to roll on Sunday and capture its second checkered flag of 2012. In the process, Earnhardt will solidifying his grip on the points lead.
Here are four other drivers to watch at the triangle-shaped track once the green flag waves:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson authored a near-perfect race at Indy. He led 147.5 of the 400 miles and seemed to have an extra gear of speed that no else in the field possessed. Here's what's scary for the rest of the sport: the past three times Johnson has won at the Brickyard -- which I wrote last week is a track where a driver's performance is an accurate predictive gauge for how he'll fare in the Chase -- he's gone on to win the championship.
In his last three starts at Pocono, Johnson has finished fourth in each race. Expect another top-five run out of the 48 team on Sunday.
2. Joey Logano
In the June race at Pocono Logano sat on the pole, led 49 laps, and took his only checkered flag of 2012. Currently 17th in the standings, Logano likely needs one more win over the final six races of the regular season to qualify for the Chase.
But Logano has an even larger issue to worry about right now: his future. With his contract at Joe Gibbs Racing expiring at season's end, the 22-year-old Logano is now the No. 1 free agent on the market. Gibbs has said that he hopes to re-sign Logano, but it appears that there won't be any room in the Gibbs stable with Matt Kenseth expected to join the three-car team next season (to go along with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch). Unless Gibbs can find a primary sponsor and add a fourth car in 2013 -- and that seems highly unlikely -- Logano won't be returning.
Where could he land? The leader in the clubhouse certainly has to be the No. 22 car of Penske Racing, which this week released A.J. Allmendinger in the wake of Allmendinger failing a drug test. Another resume-building win at Pocono wouldn't hurt Logano's chances of landing that coveted ride.
3. Denny Hamlin
A year after finishing a disappointing ninth in the standings, Hamlin has rebounded nicely. He has two wins, is currently fifth in the points, and has an average finish of 11.7, which would be a career best if he can maintain his current pace.
Hamlin, clearly, has been reinvigorated by crew chief Darien Grubb, who last season guided Tony Stewart to the Cup championship. Hamlin, who sat on the pole last weekend at Indy, has finished sixth or better in three of his last four starts and seems to be gaining speed as the Chase approaches -- exactly what Grubb was able to do with Stewart in 2011.
Hamlin loves Pocono. He's won here more times (four) than at any track on the Cup schedule. He should be a contender as the laps wind down on Sunday.
4. Greg Biffle
I chatted with Biffle after his third-place at Indy and he was ecstatic. "I wish the Chase started right now," he said. "We definitely have what it takes to win a championship."
It appears so. Though few in the garage have paid close attention to the No. 16 team this season, Biffle is third in the standings. What's more, his specialty has always been the intermediate-length tracks -- and five of the 10 Chase races take place at these venues. With his spot in the playoffs assured, look for Biffle to be ultra-aggressive in these next few weeks and go all-or-nothing for checkered flags and the bonus points that carry into the Chase.
Biffle, who won this race two years ago, has led laps in three of the last four Pocono events. He'll likely grab the lead at some point on Sunday, but it says here he won't have enough power under the hood out-last NASCAR's most popular driver: Earnhardt will win going away.