June 25, 2012
By Matthew Pizzolato
Last week at Michigan after a four year drought, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was finally able to drive the No. 88 car to Victory Lane.
He's been close on several occasions but something has always prevented him from getting there.
Earnhardt dominated the race at Pocono the week before, but chose to stop for fuel in the final laps. Otherwise, he very easily could have won two consecutive races. He was the class of the field again in the victory at Michigan, but according to Earnhardt, the final 15 laps were nerve-wracking.
"That's the worst feeling riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal lying in the racetrack," Earnhardt was quoted as saying in a press conference after the race. "I was just waiting on something to happen. So that was terrifying to be honest with you.
"I kept thinking about Steve and the team and how hard we have worked and how we deserved to win, and how we should win, and was hoping it would happen for everybody. You know, that was (weird) but that race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, and today we just whooped them really good. So that felt good."
He definitely whooped them really good and has been whooping them all year. In the first fifteen races of the season, Earnhardt has 12 top-10's, which is more than any other driver. He's never been lower than fifth in points and is the only driver to finish on the lead lap at every race. Clearly, no one in the garage is running better than he is right now.
Now that he's got that elusive victory out of the way, he can focus on his ultimate goal, that of winning his first championship. This weekend at Sonoma, he was asked if it was a fair expectation for him to contend for the championship.
"Yeah, I think so. We have been doing this a long time. We haven’t really competed for a title yet but this seems to be my best opportunity," Earnhardt was quoted as saying. "I expect to be in that conversation or answering questions related to that as long as we can keep up our consistency and keep being strong."
Even his peers like Matt Kenseth, who stated that Earnhardt is one of the favorites to win the championship and his boss, Rick Hendrick, have confidence in him.
"I think when he said he was the best driver in our camp, he had not said anything close to that before. He, as a matter of fact, would say, Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast," Rick Hendrick was quoted as saying during the NASCAR weekly teleconference. "But when he came out and said, I'm getting the job done, I'm the "A" horse in the stable right now, and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence, and that's what he needed, that's what he needs.
"When he gets that little stride, that little smile, that kind of notch in his step, he's starting having fun with it, and he starts playing with the guys on the radio when he's leading the race, that kind of reminds me of his dad," Hendrick said. "I love to see that."
The past several years, Earnhardt usually starts the season strong, but fades down the stretch and struggles to make the Chase, not even being a factor during NASCAR's playoff. This year, the No. 88 team seems to have turned their fortunes around. Not only do they expect to contend for a title, but according to crew chief, Steve Letarte, more victories are in sight.
"We'd be lying if we didn't think we had opportunities to win races through the summer. That's what we do," Letarte was said during a NASCAR teleconference. "That's why the team is assembled. That's why Mr. Hendrick is in racing, to win races. If you don't think you can win, you should stay home."
"We try not to put expectations on how many you can win. You have to win one before you can win two. It was great to win one," Letarte said. "There are some great races coming up. We're excited. The summer stretch is an area where we feel we can win races. We feel we can win everywhere we go. That's our goal."
With Earnhardt's confidence level riding so high and with the results he's been able to post so far this season, his first championship may not be firmly within his grasp just yet, but he is the number one contender.
Editor's note: Earnhardt finished 23rd on Sunday at Sonoma.
If you would like to learn more about Matthew, please check out his web site at matthew-pizzolato.com.
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