CONCORD, N.C. -- For the first time in years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters a season as a true title contender. Despite his struggles over the past few seasons -- Earnhardt has finished outside the top 10 in points in five of the last eight seasons -- he said he never doubted he could be a champion someday.
"I knew I could [win] in the right circumstances,'' Earnhardt said this week during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I never thought to myself, 'Well, me as a driver I'm just not cut out to be a champion, I don't have what it takes.' I never felt that way. I just knew that it took so many variables to come together and it takes everything working the right way."
Since winning a career-high six races and finishing fifth in the points in 2004, Earnhardt has been more a curiosity than a contender in the sport. Part of that was due to equipment, part was because of his working relationship with his crew chief and part was a loss of confidence that had Earnhardt questioning the direction his career was headed.
All that changed when car owner Rick Hendrick paired Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte. The union revived Earnhardt's confidence and led to his first victory last season in four years. Entering their third year together -- remember, Brad Keselowski won last year's title in his third year with crew chief Paul Wolfe, and 2011 champ Tony Stewart was in his third year with crew chief Darian Grubb -- expectations are high for Earnhardt.
"It's important that things continue to progress and they can't flatline,'' Earnhardt said. "We can't sit there and say, 'All right, we're a top-10 team.' We've got to be a top-five team, and we've got to do things better. We ended up doing that last year. We were in the points lead a couple of times, in the conversation about the Chase and one of the teams to look at as far as a contender. I had never been that in as many years as I can remember.''
What he recalls, though, is the title he lost.
Although he finished third in the points in 2003, his best chance for a championship was in '04, the first year of the Chase. With the top two in the points out of contention at Atlanta, Earnhardt was set to take the points lead with three races left. While trying to complete a pass for third with less than 20 laps to go, Earnhardt crashed, essentially ending his title hopes.
"At that moment right before we ended up in the fence on the back straightaway, the championship was the furthest thing from my mind,'' he said. "It was the closing laps of the race where we needed to get a top five. I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking about trying to win a race and ended up getting in over my head and getting knocked out of the race. I didn't know what it took. I didn't know how to piece everything together and make it happen. I was short because I didn't use my head in certain instances.''
Having learned from those mistakes, now may finally be the time to prove he can be a Cup champion.
How much longer?
Jeff Gordon, who ranks third on the all-time wins list with 87 victories, is moving closer to the end of his career at age 41, but just when will that be in a series where Mark Martin is still driving at age 54?
"There was a time when I didn't think I was going to be racing at 40, so I hate to even say 'never say never,' but I'm pretty sure that's not something that is in the cards for me," Gordon said of racing as long as Martin has. "I don't work as hard on the physical side as Mark does, so from a physical standpoint I don't think I'd be prepared for it.
"Also, I'm as excited about the future that I have when that day comes when I'm not driving the car in motorsports, maybe even some other opportunities and my kids and my family and that life. I feel like I have a whole other step of life and career ahead of me that if I selfishly race until I'm 50 or 52, I think it's going to take away some of those opportunities that are there that I'm excited about."
The story of Travis Pastrana's first meeting with Jack Roush Fenway Racing, for whom he will be driving full-time this season under the Roush Fenway Racing banner, is quite a tale. It led to Pastrana driving for Roush at Richmond last fall and to this year's deal.
Here's how Pastrana tells it:
"I don't know who was more confused in our first conversation. I don't know if his questions were rhetorical or leading or if he even knew what he was asking me. We learned a lot about each other in that first conversation.
"It was funny, I came to him. He said, 'So, you're not coming here because it's flashy and you want to have fun?'
"I want to have fun,'' Pastrana told Roush.
"'Do you want to have fun or do you want to win?'
"Is this a trick question (Pastrana thought to himself). I want to do both.
"He said, 'If you're here it's because you want to win.'
"I want to win."
"He said, 'Well, you're not going to go do something else and hurt yourself after the season.'
"I said, "No sir.''
"He said ... 'In five years what are you going to be doing?'
"I said, 'Well ...'
"'No wells,''' Roush said.
"I'm going to be racing in Cup.
"He said, 'You going to be racing or you're going to be winning?'
"I said, 'Jack, I'm going to be winning Cup races.'
"He said, 'Good. You're racing Richmond. You better show some speed. You better not crash my car.'"
Car owner Roger Penske admitted that there might have been a place for Ryan Newman back with Penske Racing this season but all the details didn't come together.
Newman drove for Penske in Cup from his series debut in 2000 through '08 before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing. Though his contract at Stewart-Haas Racing expired after last season, Newman eventually signed a one-year contract extension for this season to remain the team.
"I talked to Ryan at one point before we talked to [Joey] Logano, and, obviously, sponsors help you make some of those decisions,'' Penske said. "We looked at the potential. (Newman's sponsor) Quicken Loans is a company from Detroit. There was a potential opportunity to hook up with Newman. We just didn't have the balance or the support to run three cars. We felt that one of the things that led to our success last year was the fact that we only ran two cars so we could make these changes from race to race. I think he's in a good place with Stewart for another year."
There's nothing like a not-so-subtle prediction of greatness to get your career going. Take Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose car owner Jack Roush says should set a goal to finish in the top 15, and would be "a dream to try to get him into the Chase.''
Stenhouse, the two-time defending Nationwide champion, takes over the No. 17 ride that was Matt Kenseth's (now at Joe Gibbs Racing) this season.
Asked how good Stenhouse could be, Roush didn't undersell his driver.
"Ricky Stenhouse will be as good in this business as any driver has been in the modern era,'" Roush said. "He's the real deal.
"There are a lot of drivers that have got the mechanical and technical skill to drive these cars, but there are few of them that are able to do what Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and our other guys have done down through the years."
Stenhouse will compete against Danica Patrick for rookie of the year honors this season.
He said it
Jimmie Johnson, on what car owner Rick Hendrick told Kasey Kahne about Kahne's new hairstyle, which features close-shaved sides and more hair on top: "You need $20 to finish the rest of the haircut?"
He said it II
Dale Earnhardt Jr., about triggering the 12-car crash at Daytona testing earlier this month: "I thought long and hard and that was probably the most embarrassed I had ever been in a long time."
He said it III
Juan Pablo Montoya on nearing the one-year anniversary of his crash into a jet dryer in the Daytona 500: "I don't think about it. Something broke on the car. I had a big accident and moved on. That's it. What's amazing is that there are people that believe you would do that on purpose. They're that freakin' dumb."
He said it IV
Brad Keselowski said last year that he wanted to get a tank. Asked about if he's gotten one yet, he said: "I'm working on it. It's not easy. You know how hard it is to get a tank? Shouldn't there be like a dealership?"
He said it V
Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch engaged in some fun ribbing when talking about how Kenseth was so fast at the Daytona test earlier this month.
Busch said: "We already gave him all the best stuff, he was the fastest Toyota car down at the Daytona test. What else do we got to do?"
Kenseth said: "That was part of my deal. Kyle might have got all the money (with his contract extension), but I got all the good stuff."
Busch said: "That's all right. I make up for it in talent."
They both laughed.
Odds and ends
Joe Gibbs Racing announced that it had signed Kyle Busch to a contract extension. His contract was to have expired after this season. Also, Busch will drive in the Nationwide Series for JGR. Busch will still have his own Nationwide team with Parker Kligerman driving, a truck team for Joey Coulter and also will run about 10 truck races. ... Car owner Rick Hendrick said that only Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car has sponsorship available among the four Cup teams. Hendrick said that Earnhardt's car is "covered until the end of summer. I'm looking for the right deal, not any deal." ... Penske Racing announced a multi-year sponsorship extension with Shell-Pennzoil to sponsor the No. 22 car of Joey Logano. ... Sam Hornish Jr. will have Greg Erwin, a former Cup crew chief, in that role on his Nationwide team this season. ... Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing announced a multi-year partnership with Cessna Aircraft Company to sponsor its cars in NASCAR, IndyCar and GRAND-AM. Cessna will be a sponsor on Jamie McMurray's Cup car. ... SMI Chairman Bruton Smith continued his debate against start-and-park cars this week. "I think it's got to be stopped," Smith said of cars intentionally pulling off the track early and collecting a paycheck. Smith said he'd be for shrinking the 43-car Cup field to reduce the chances a start-and-park team made the race. ... Smithfield Foods will expand its sponsorship to 25 races this season of the No. 43 car and Aric Almirola at Richard Petty Motorsports. ... Roush Fenway Racing officials said that nine sponsors with contracts expiring after last season returned but that sponsorship remains available on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s car this season.