For a man on a 137-race winless streak, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sure has a lot of swagger.
Last Friday at Kansas, NASCAR's most popular driver, who has never won a title, said that he considers himself to be the best driver at Hendrick Motorsports, an organization featuring five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champ Jeff Gordon.
"[Johnson] is a hell of a race car driver, but I feel like I'm the best," Earnhardt said. "I think that's the way you have to feel. I feel that I'm smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody, and I know a lot of people ain't going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it."
After eight races, Earnhardt is fourth in points with three top-five and six top-10 finishes. The numbers certainly don't support his argument (Johnson has 55 Cup wins and Gordon is third on the all-time victory list with 85, while Earnhardt has just 18), but in the world of competitive sports self-pride and ego are as important as talent. If an athlete doesn't feel he is better than those he is competing against, then why be out there in the first place.
Still, Earnhardt understands there is a hierarchy at Hendrick.
"[T]here is a bit of a pecking order and it really comes down to what you've done lately," Earnhardt said. "I think that Jimmie [Johnson] and Jeff [Gordon] will always carry a certain role in that company that I will probably never achieve just due to them being there that long and having that trust built up with Rick [Hendrick, team owner] and all the employees there and their accomplishments obviously."
Lately, Dale Jr. has been the best driver at Hendrick. Gordon and newcomer Kasey Kahne have struggled out of the gate, ranking 18th and 26th respectively, while Johnson has failed to rediscover his title-winning form. Earnhardt, meanwhile, is 21 points behind leader Greg Biffle.
"The season has been going pretty good," Earnhardt said. "We've been real consistent and running well each week. Just haven't really had that breakout race yet. We feel pretty good about what's been happening and how things have been going for us."
But the winless drought still hangs over Earnhardt's head. His last trip to Victory Lane came at Michigan on June 15, 2008. He's come close to returning this year, and after finishing seventh Sunday at Kansas, he was told the team looks to be on the verge of that "breakout race."
"We are," he responded simply.
It could happen as soon as this weekend at Richmond. Earnhardt has three wins, eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 25 starts at Richmond. His last win before Michigan? You guessed it: Richmond on May 6, 2006.
Despite the wealth of talent, depth and resources at Hendrick Motorsports, the team has experienced its own winless drought of late. No Hendrick driver has hit Victory Lane since Johnson did it at Kansas last October. With Rick Hendrick on the verge of 200 wins, the pressure to win is only intensifying.
"Well, you want to win for Rick [Hendrick] and for yourself and your team," Earnhardt admitted. "Everybody here needs a win for one reason or another. We're all working really hard. I'm not really focusing on it or honing in on it too heavily. You've just got to think about what your car is doing and what you need to do to help your car, and make your car faster and the wins eventually take care of themselves."
Each Hendrick driver wants to be the one that gets win No. 200 for Hendrick. Imagine how big it will be if that driver is Earnhardt on Saturday night.
"You have to be around a long time I guess," Earnhardt said of 200. "I think it says a lot about your ability to put people in the right place, how you can manage people, your ability to hand-pick people and seek qualities in people and where they need to be to help the company. ... That's how you win large, large chunks of races like that."
But there are bigger goals ahead for Earnhardt. He needs to maintain his impressive start and devise a strategy that will get him into the Chase for the Championship for the second straight season.
Earnhardt has found his swagger and self-confidence -- something that was missing in 2009 and 2010 when he was filled with self-doubt, questioning his desire to be in the sport. He's once again a man comfortable in his own skin.
"I think that one of my weaknesses in the past has been to not realize what I need to do that exact day," Earnhardt said. "I would be in races and something would happen or I would be faced with some adversity and instead of staying calm and trying to maximize what I can do that very day and get every point I can get that very day, there were times when I would make mistakes and cost myself ... even more points.
"What I did last year, and what I'm trying to do this year, is when we have a run where the car is just really not working or if we have a mistake on pit road or anything for that matter, anything that sets us back, is to try to remain calm and think about what I can do to get the most points that day instead of thinking too far out or thinking too nearsighted about the situation and ruining the day and making things even worse for ourselves.
"I started thinking that way when they changed the points system because I thought this new points system was really going to reward consistency more and really punish poor finishes more so than the old system. ... If you have a bad race, you really lose so many points and those are really hard to get back. We are just trying not to have bad races."
By eliminating the "bad races" Earnhardt has found his consistency. The next step is to find his way back to Victory Lane.