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With skid over, anything seems possible for Junior

June 22, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



With skid over, anything seems possible for Junior

SONOMA, Calif. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s brother-in-law, modified driver L.W. Miller, has a friend whose father is in failing health. In recent days, he hasn't been able to recognize his own sons. And yet this week, he couldn't stop talking about Earnhardt's skid-busting victory at Michigan International Speedway.

Stories like that make NASCAR's most popular driver aware of just how impactful his win last weekend was. "That really kind of brings it home, and makes you realize how something like that affects a lot of people, makes a big difference in a lot of people's lives," Earnhardt said Friday at the Sonoma road course. "It was pretty amazing to hear a story like that, and hear other stories like that. And just the amount of people -- you don't ever take it for granted that people are tuned in that much."

"When he gets that little stride, that little smile, that kind of notch in his step, he's starting having fun with it ... that kind of reminds me of his dad."

--RICK HENDRICK

Earnhardt's first triumph in four years, which snapped a skid of 143 winless race weekends, generated a cavalcade of response, from a mention on NBC's nightly news program to a congratulatory message from musician Charlie Daniels. The reaction to his breakthrough has been bigger than he imagined, right down to the teammates, competitors and series executives who paraded into Victory Lane last weekend to share the big moment with him. Although Earnhardt has done that kind of thing himself, he didn't realize quite how much it meant until he found himself on the receiving end.

"All kinds of cool stuff like that was happening all week long," he said, "and made it pretty special."

Yes, it's been a week of very good feeling for both NASCAR and the driver of the No. 88 car, who may need it as he carries momentum from his victory into what might be his worst track on the Sprint Cup tour. The Sonoma circuit is one of only two venues on the schedule longer than a year (along with Homestead-Miami Speedway) at which Earnhardt has never recorded a top-10 finish. But this season has revealed a more confident, more content, and more focused Earnhardt, one who has spent less time racing online and more time on his real race car, one who stands second in points and has emerged as a serious contender for the championship.

* Sound Off: Getting a feel for the road

So yes, admittedly, he doesn't have much of a track record here. His best finish at Sonoma is 11th, recorded most recently two years ago, and last season he got caught up in a wreck not of his own making and wound up 41st. He ran off course once in opening practice Friday, where his top speed ranked 16th on the chart. But Earnhardt already has shaken one burden off his back this year. What's one more?

"We've had such a good season, and we come in here and we want to continue that," said Earnhardt, who stands four points behind series leader Matt Kenseth. "If for any reason we have some problems or trouble, we won't really dwell on it too much. But we'd like to have a good run. We come in here with a positive attitude. But we know the reality of the situation is I don't have a top-10 here. We'll just have to see what we can do. We'll just have to try our best."

Any other season, that might sound like a smokescreen. But those who know Earnhardt have seen a difference in him this year, and it's not just because he's getting outside and taking cuts against Lowe's or 84 Lumber as part of the JR Motorsports company softball team. This is the same driver who earlier this year said he considered himself the best in the powerful Hendrick Motorsports stable -- a group that includes multiple-time champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in addition to superstar Kasey Kahne -- and since then has proceeded to back it up.

"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," owner Rick Hendrick said. "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. I love to see that. I'm really excited, because I think he's having fun and looking forward to the races. And that's all about your confidence. You've just got to get in a rhythm where you can run good every week when you feel that way."

And that was before he shed the four-year yoke of getting back into Victory Lane. Even Earnhardt's teammates rave about how consistent he's been this year, with a series-leading 12 top-10 finishes thus far. Given the circumstances, why not feel good about running well at a place where you've rarely run well? Why not focus on a much bigger goal? Unshackled from his winless skid, second in the point standings, riding a wave of confidence and momentum -- right now anything seems possible for Earnhardt, including NASCAR's biggest prize.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads all drivers with 12 top-10 finishes in 2012.
• His average finish of 7.4 is his best through the first 15 races.
• He's the only driver to complete every lap this season (4,648).

"We've been doing this a long time, and haven't really competed for a title yet. But this seems to be my best opportunity," Earnhardt said. "So 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."

Check out Earnhardt's season highlights: