Any questions? Junior a legitimate title contender
June 10, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Compared to February's emotional, dramatic and much-celebrated Daytona 500 victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s maiden trip to Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway on Sunday was modest and business-like. And every bit as significant.
It wasn't the big trophy but the small sticker that Earnhardt received and placed above the driver's door that will most affect his immediate fortunes. It simply says "WINNER," and he joins the elite of the elite with two of those stickers in 2014.
For those that might have scoffed at his Daytona win because it came on Earnhardt's personal playground -- the restrictor-plate Daytona and Talladega speedways -- the win at Pocono further serves notice that he should be considered a serious player for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship.
The two victories bookend one of his best starts to a season. Sunday marked Earnhardt's series-best sixth top-three finish in the No. 88 Chevrolet. He has three runner-up finishes (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Darlington) in addition to his wins.
He couldn't have timed his first multi-win season in a decade any better considering the impact and importance on the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format that rewards winners with a berth in the playoffs.
"It's elusive, man,'' Earnhardt conceded about his first two-win season since 2004.
This year it is also a game-changer.
"We started out the season when we won at Daytona and it made the rest of the year a lot more relaxing, a lot easier, less stress and it makes it fun because you can just go to the race track and just race and not worry about points,'' Earnhardt said. "Now having two wins is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase.
"I mean, not only are we able to relax right now. … that's got to be positive for our composure and psyche going into the Chase, not having to stress all the way through into Richmond, you know?"
It's never been easy for Earnhardt, who has simultaneously created and alienated the largest fan base in NASCAR. Thanks primarily to the massive and vocal "Junior Nation," he is an 11-time Most Popular Driver Award winner. Yet, he gets harshly -- and unfairly -- criticized if he doesn't run up front every week.
"I'm turning 40 this year and the overrated talk is way behind me,'' Earnhardt said Sunday. "That used to bother me when I was younger, but when you get old you don't really care anymore about those kind of things. I feel like I'm such a lucky guy to have this second opportunity almost, to be competitive again and so I don't really worry about the detractors.''
In fact, even in the celebratory post-win moments, Earnhardt was able to laugh about his naysayers -- especially those that enjoy the anonymous one-sided banter on Twitter.
"I have a lot more fun actually reading that stuff on Twitter than I do a typical normal joke,'' said a smiling Earnhardt. "Some of the stuff the haters say is the funniest stuff. It's really funny."
Earnhardt said he has so far resisted the temptation to respond. "I just favorite them and block them. It's so much fun.''
Fun is something Earnhardt has been having a lot of lately. He's always done such a tremendous job of keeping perspective on a NASCAR life and career wrought with so much circumstance.
After years of stressing out trying to live up to expectations -- his own and everyone else's -- he has found a formula that is working well at the moment. His success is parlaying itself. The better he does, the easier the approach. The easier the approach, the better he does.
"Easy now,'' he laughed when asked if the No. 88 is the new No. 48. "They just came off two straight wins and everybody was about to crown him the champion. Two weeks before they were wondering what the hell was wrong with him, two weeks later he's the best thing on the block.
"I don't want to be the 48. I want to be the new 88. We'll definitely continue to work hard and try to win some more races and try to leave our own mark and not a mark similar to anyone else.''
Earnhardt hasn't won back-to-back races since his second NASCAR Nationwide Series championship season in 1999 when he won three straight (Dover, South Boston and Watkins Glen). But he finds himself in prime position to do so.
This week's venue, Michigan International Speedway, has historically been one of Earnhardt's best tracks from the first time he turned laps there.
He never finished worse than seventh at Michigan in four Nationwide Series starts and won his last two NNS races there in 1999 and 2006. At the Cup level, he has a pair of poles at the super-fast 2-miler and a pair of wins, the last coming in 2012.
"A win gives you a lot of confidence, but you know and realize how difficult those are to come by and how competitive this garage is,'' Earnhardt said. "But man, when you win two in a row that sets you apart a bit from your competition. That would be a great thing for us.
"Winning races is great, but it's nothing unless you enjoy who you're doing it with and when you can do something great and it's with people you enjoy being around, man it really adds to it, so this is why it's so special right now.''