Junior's turnaround continues by seizing points lead in Indianapolis
It is merely symbolic because in six races the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings will reset for the title Chase, but that does not diminish the significance of Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the points lead Sunday.
Earnhardt's fourth-place finish -- a career-best at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- vaults him atop the Cup point standings for the first time since 2004.
Earnhardt, who leads Matt Kenseth by 14 points, isn't overwhelmed by his achievement.
"It just means we've persevered all year,'' Earnhardt said. "We're working hard and we'd like to win some more races.''
He last led the points in Oct. 2004 after winning at Talladega. Earnhardt quickly lost it when NASCAR penalized him 25 points for uttering an expletive during his Victory Lane interview.
There were such worries Sunday of that happening again.
"I'm not excited enough to have that happen again,'' Earnhardt said with a smile on pit road after the race.
His fans might be.
They've endured the struggles, his bouts with confidence and taunts from others about the attention the sport's most popular driver received despite a four-year winless drought that ended earlier this season.
This has been a season -- so far -- for them to celebrate.
Asked about how his fans might react to him leading the points, Earnhardt said: "'I'm sure they would like us to win more races.''
It's quite likely to happen. Earnhardt is on the verge of one of his best seasons in Cup. His 15 top-10 finishes tie Sunday's race winner, Jimmie Johnson, for most this season. Earnhardt is doing what crew chief Steve Letarte tells him. Earnhardt and his team are making the car better throughout the race, something once viewed as a weakness.
Earnhardt's sister, Kelley, said this week that her brother is as confident as he was in 2003-04 when he scored eight of his 19 Cup victories. She credits Letarte.
"He's just an easygoing guy and that's what Dale needs,'' Kelley Earnhardt-Miller said. "Dale is not a person of conflict.''
Earnhardt's working relationship with Letarte has spawned a new driver.
"Is he putting more effort into things? Yes,'' Earnhardt-Miller said. "Working out or eating better or trying to condition himself a little differently. The accountability that Steve places on him in the meetings and the things they do at the racetrack. Those are all different for Dale.''
While Earnhardt was humble Sunday, his confidence has blossomed this year. When asked at Kansas in April if Johnson was better than him, Earnhardt's response was sharp.
"No. He's a hell of a race car driver, but I feel like I'm the best,'' Earnhardt said. "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."
The comment surprised many who easily recall Earnhardt's hound dog demeanor when he struggled for top-10 finishes just a couple of years ago.
"When he's not doing well he doesn't feel like he's the best,'' Earnhardt-Miller said.
Earnhardt is showing he belongs to be mentioned among the best this year.
The biggest turnaround has come this summer, a period where Earnhardt has wilted at times. He does not run as well at some of the tracks during this stretch. He's been strong at nearly every such track this year. Earnhardt has finished outside the top 15 once since Memorial Day and that was when he was wrecked in the final laps at Sonoma.
Sunday's result was his first top-10 finish at Indianapolis since 2006 when he finished sixth, his previous best at this track.
"I've done a lot of good things and career bests with Steve,'' Earnhardt said. "Just a lot of good things happening this year. Hope we can keep it going.''
There's no reason to think he can't.
"Leading the points at any time in the season, especially this late in the season, I think, proves that this team is capable of winning a championship,'' Letarte said. "We think we definitely haven't hit our stride yet.''
Teammate Jeff Gordon, who is fighting to make the Chase, says he could see Earnhardt vying for the championship this season.
"If they can keep that consistency up and maybe even take it up a notch when the Chase starts,'' he said, "they're going to be a real threat for the championship.''
Earnhardt's success, along with that of Johnson, creates the delicious idea for car owner Rick Hendrick that the championship battle could be between two teams housed in the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Stevie and Junior have really brought a lot to the table,'' Johnson said after his fourth Indianapolis victory. "I would have to say from Pocono [in June] to now, the stuff that Junior's liked in the car and what he's felt has opened up doors for us to pursue and a road for us to go down to where we've made our stuff better.
"There's a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it has ever been. I'm happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull on them and it's really a two-way street. That's something that is new this year.''
Just like leading the points. It makes one wonder what else could be new for Earnhardt this year.