LONG POND, Pa. — By the time Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached Victory Lane last season at Michigan, the win seemed as much inevitable as implausible.
One top-10 finish at a time, Earnhardt built and built before a four-year 143-race winless streak was snapped.
Look who’s back on a hot streak.
Earnhardt is set to roll into Michigan International Speedway, the site of his past two Sprint Cup victories. He’s in fourth place in the points standings (he finished 12th last season) and is coming off a third-place finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt can’t be blamed too much for being unable to pull out his first win of the season. No driver was going to beat Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, who led 128 of 160 laps en route to his third win of the season. Earnhardt was there at the end, though, battling Johnson off two restarts over the final 10 laps before finally yielding to Greg Biffle for second. He has back-to-back top-10 finishes and three in his past four races.
“Hopefully, we can do this throughout the summer and get ourselves in the Chase pretty comfortably,” he said. “We’ve got a little work to do to get to where some of the other guys are.”
Earnhardt and five-time champion Johnson have their cars built pretty much side by side. Earnhardt crew chief Steve Letarte and Johnson’s pit box guru Chad Knaus swap ideas and setups. Earnhardt and crew have benefited from the sharing.
“They grow stronger and stronger each week,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a bright light on these guys and what they do week and week out. They’re strong and they elevate their teammates, as well. They’re great teammates. They help us out. We certainly do all we can to help them out and help them grow and get stronger.”
Earnhardt’s performance had tailed off a bit after opening the season with five consecutive top-10 finishes, including two runner-up finishes. A five-race dip, with four finishes of 16th or worse, was next. At the rate he’s rebounded, those results could just be a blip that happens to just about every driver over the taxing 36-race season.
“We’ve been carrying momentum for a good solid year now,” Earnhardt said. “We started the year off really good. We just had a lot of problems since then and just struggled to get good finishes. We are all right. We know what we need to do. Confidence is there. All the fans can rest assured we feel like we are on the right track.”
That’s a lot of fans considering Earnhardt has long ruled NASCAR’s most popular driver for a decade.
“They’re clicking,” Johnson said. “They’re doing a great job.”
Earnhardt hasn’t won since Michigan. But he followed Michigan last year with three fourth-place finishes over five races, and only a concussion that kept him out of two Chase races truly ended his championship hopes.
“It’s good to be able to run good again,” Earnhardt said.