Dale Earnhardt Jr. started fast a year ago. He won a race and teetered between first and fifth in the standings for the first 25 races.
But he missed two races in the Chase for the Championship and wound up 12th in the final standings.
Maybe that’s why he’s not getting overly optimistic about being atop the Sprint Cup Series standings again.
The most-popular driver in NASCAR has the points lead heading into Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway. He’s finished in the top 10 in all five races so far, including second-place runs at Daytona Beach, Fla., and Fontana, Calif.
He believes the first 10 races of the current season will help define his chances to win his first championship. So far, he’s on schedule.
It took him a few years to create his own way in NASCAR, especially after his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
The third-generation driver now seems to be better prepared to win a championship. While he remains the highest-paid driver in the sport – Forbes estimated his annual income at a series-best $25 million – but he leaves most of his outside interests to his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller.
While others manage his restaurants and race teams, he worries solely about his job at Hendrick Motorsports.
He seems more relaxed and content with his role on the No. 88 team. He’s resisted from making critical comments about his car and waging personal battles with crew chiefs to becoming a bigger part of the overall discussion about the car. He’s more involved with set-ups and changes, and he works harder to find solutions than complaining about failures.
And it’s worn off on everyone else on his race team.
“I think we’re feeling confident,” Earnhardt said. “The guys seem to be happy with the results. My crew guys really work real hard and expect good runs and expect us to run well, expect me to do my job. They hold me pretty accountable. It’s early. We’re just kind of grinding it out, got a lot of racing left to run.”
Despite his success in the standings, winning races remains elusive. Since joining Hendrick in 2008 – a stretch of 255 starts – he’s only won two times.
“We were pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” he said. “We’re not winning races, and I don’t expect to get much attention until we can win races.”
“I think we should run better. We’ve finished well, but I think that there’s a lot of areas that we can improve, and we get to focus on that sort of being out of the scope and out of the spotlight. You know, if we go out and win some races, we’ll get credit where credit is due.”
Until then, he will enjoy his place in the standings.
“Just riding the wave, just real happy with how things are going for our team,” he said.
With hopes of finishing just as strong.
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