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Menzer: Earnhardt Jr. among reasons to be excited

April 09, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Sitting second in points, driver could break 135-race winless drought at Texas

After a rare week off in NASCAR, it's time to get the engines cranked again.

For the week ahead, here are four huge reasons to be excited -- and what looms immediately on the racing horizon:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Full-season results
Year Wins T-5s T-10s Pts.
2000* 2 3 5 16
2001 3 9 15 8
2002 2 11 16 11
2003 2 13 21 3
2004 6 16 21 5
2005 1 7 13 19
2006 1 10 17 5
2007 0 7 12 16
2008 1 10 16 12
2009 0 2 5 25
2010 0 3 8 21
20110 4 12 7

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. No, he hasn't won a Sprint Cup race yet this season -- or since June 2008. But he's second in the points behind Greg Biffle. Second, folks.

More importantly for Junior, he and his entire team are brimming with the self-confidence that has eluded them in recent years. Much of the credit goes to crew chief Steve Letarte, who is smart and a master motivator. Even for skeptics (such as this reporter), it's impossible to ignore what the No. 88 team seems to have going for it at the moment. The key to the season won't be so much getting back to winning races -- though that will be important to contend for a championship -- but how it survives a series of summer races that in the past have dragged it down. There can be no summer swoon for Earnhardt this time around if his season truly is going to prove different.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of that 135-race winless streak that continues to hang around Earnhardt's neck like an albatross, and not the kind they were talking about at The Masters. Pro golfer and recent albatross-maker Louis Oosthuizen has won the same number of Sprint Cup races as Earnhardt during the past three years, 10 months. But this week, Earnhardt goes to a track he's always liked at Texas Motor Speedway. He's finished in the top 10 in three of the past four races at TMS, while he owns one win, three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes at the venue in his career. Could this be the week where he makes the rest of the field in Texas toast?

2. Return to The Rock for NASCAR. With the Nationwide Series and Cup races set for Friday and Saturday nights under the lights, respectively, at Texas, all stock-car racing eyes on Sunday will be locked on Rockingham Speedway. Previously known as North Carolina Speedway, it first opened in 1965 and held NASCAR-sanctioned events for 40 years before hosting its last Cup race on Feb. 22, 2004.

Now it will be back in the spotlight with the running of the first Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 in the Camping World Truck Series. Track owner Andy Hillenburg bought the place from Speedway Motorsports Inc. for $4.4 million in 2007, and it had been hosting smaller races from other series prior to getting this opportunity.

This is an old-school track on a slick asphalt surface with bumps, multiple grooves and character galore. The Truck drivers generally put on an entertaining show anyway, but this one has the makings of being something special -- not only in that it marks the historic return to a once-beloved NASCAR track hoping to regain lost glory but also in that the race itself holds great promise.

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3. Wild-card mania. Have you checked the Cup standings after the first six races and seen whose outside the top 12 in points? Most notably in possible trouble are Kyle Busch (16th), Juan Montoya (17th), Jeff Gordon (21st), Jamie McMurray (24th) and Kasey Kahne (31st). These guys have proven in the past that they can win (in Montoya's case, it likely would have to be at a road course).

There are a number of others, including Joey Logano (13th), Jeff Burton (15th), Regan Smith (18th), AJ Allmendinger (20th) and Marcos Ambrose (23rd), who likely might have something to say in the wild-card race before the final Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set in September. All are capable of winning races, which would put them squarely in any conversation to claim the final two Chase spots via the wild-card system put in place last season. But remember, they have to finish the first 26 regular-season races within the top 20 in points as well as winning at least one race to claim a wild card.

The bottom line? It's going to make for an entertaining spring, summer and early fall as these guys scramble to improve their points position while pushing hard for victories. It's just another reminder of how brilliant an idea it was for NASCAR to add the wild-card element to the Chase format.

4. The Nationwide Series returns to action. You know what that means, right? No, not just that Danica Patrick will be back on the track, though that's true, too. Patrick has given the series a boost in the publicity department, but she still has lots to learn -- and has admitted it. Until further notice, she's not newsworthy until her first top-10 finish of the season. Let's let her simply gather experience until she can at least move ahead of Jeremy Clements and Benny Gordon in the point standings.

The series has plenty of other interesting subplots to offer from drivers and teams performing well. Points leader Elliott Sadler has won two of the first five races after struggling to find Victory Lane a year ago. Tight on his heels are defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Trevor Bayne and Sam Hornish Jr. -- each a good story in his own right, and each for a different reason.

One year later, it's proving that NASCAR's decision to have drivers claim one series -- and one only -- in which they intended to compete for a championship also is having the intended effect. The spotlight is on the non-Cup guys (and gal) in the Nationwide Series again, more so than in years. And that's the way it should be.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.