The Junior Nation has not had much to cheer about in recent years, but Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence is repaying those loyal and patient fans for the lost time.
Earnhardt Jr.’s name is suddenly being bantered about as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title contender after long-awaited returns to Victory Lane and the top of the points standings that has energized the Junior Nation and their favorite son.
Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, took care of the victory drought first, winning in mid-June at Michigan to snap a 143-race winless streak that spanned over four seasons. And don’t think he wasn’t fully aware of the magnitude of his accomplishment for Junior Nation.
"They stayed loyal," said Earnhardt Jr., whose previous win came at Michigan in 2008. "As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thought -- was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs, or running out in the yard, or whatever they do. I just wish I could see it all at once."
His fans may have once again been screaming in their living rooms or running out in the yard after his recent fourth-place finish at Indianapolis put him somewhere he had not visited in nearly eight years – No. 1 in the points standings.
Earnhardt Jr.’s 14-point lead over Matt Kenseth after Indy marked the first time he officially led the standings since Sept. 19, 2004 following a third-place finish at New Hampshire, a span of 281 starts. He also sat atop the points after the Oct. 3, 2004 race at Talladega, but lost it midweek following a 25-point penalty stemming from a post-race Victory Lane interview.
Despite a 32nd-place finish Sunday at Pocono due to a gear problem, Earnhardt Jr. maintained the points lead for a second week, clinging to a five-point advantage over Kenseth.
"All season long we've been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we've done," Earnhardt Jr. said prior to Pocono. "We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase."
Texas Motor Speedway celebrated his perch atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings by offering a “2 for $88” frontstretch ticket package for as long as he remained at No. 1. Earnhardt Jr. appreciated the gesture since it benefitted the fans and the promotion will continue again this week at a minimum as he maintained the No. 1 spot following Pocono.
“Eddie (Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president) always has a lot of different strings he pulls and I think that’s a classy one,” Earnhardt said. “Anything to make the process easier or cheaper for the fan is a great move. I know they’re always trying to work on things to make the experience better for the fans, but to slash the ticket prices is probably at the top of their list. So I think that’s pretty cool. I thought it was a classy move.”
Prior to last season, Earnhardt Jr. had not finished better than 12th in the championship since 2006 when he was fifth. The turnaround began in earnest in 2011 as team owner Rick Hendrick paired Earnhardt Jr. with Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte. The pairing did not result in a win in 2011, but they did earn a berth in the Chase for only the second time in the past five seasons, and finished seventh in the championship. He also earned 12 top-10 finishes on the season, which was one less than he accumulated in the previous two seasons combined.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Gordon said. “It’s really awesome that they’re out front. They’ve been consistent and if they can keep that consistency up and maybe even take it up a notch when the Chase starts, they’re going to be a real threat for the championship.”
Hendrick also opted to move the No. 88 team in the same shop as five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, and that has been beneficial as well.
"There’s a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it’s ever been," Johnson said. "I’m happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them and it’s a two-way street."
Earnhardt Jr. has found the consistency that has eluded him in recent years and the result has been a surge to the top of the points standings. Through 21 races, he has 15 top-10 finishes, including nine among the top five. His nine top-five finishes already equals the number he had in the last three seasons combined.
Earnhardt Jr. will look to maintain his hold on the top spot in the Sprint Cup Series standings when he heads to Watkins Glen International for Sunday’s road-course race.