News & Media

Earnhardt's points lead is attention-getter

August 03, 2012, David Caraviello,

Junior celebrated in hometown, Texas and this weekend's Pocono race

LONG POND, Pa. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ascended to the top of the Sprint Cup points standings, and it seems everyone has taken notice. An elementary school supported by his foundation and located near his home in Mooresville, N.C., hung a large sign congratulating him on the achievement. Texas Motor Speedway, never one to miss a promotional opportunity, is selling two fronstretch tickets for an amount that mirrors his car number as long as NASCAR's most popular driver holds the series lead. And Pocono Raceway will hold a drawing that awards one fan $100,000 if Earnhardt wins Sunday's race.

"That would be good for whoever gets the money, and we'll be enjoying the trophy in Victory Lane," Earnhardt said Friday. "Everybody wins, I suppose."

*Video: Dale Earnhardt Jr. sounds off at Pocono

Jimmie Johnson may have claimed last weekend's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it's clear that the big winner this week is Earnhardt, who parlayed a best-ever finish at the Brickyard into his first points lead in nearly eight years. No, it's not a championship. And, unless he wins a few more races, he'll be outside that top spot when positions are reseeded in advance of the Chase. But, for now, there's clearly some contentment over seeing his name at the top of the standings, which in the driver's mind is a validation of all the work it's taken to get there.

"We're running well, but we need to win more races. ... We've been quick, but in my opinion we've been the fastest guy only once or twice this year, and I don't know if that's good enough. "


"I think a lot of people downplay it," Earnhardt said of being the points leader. "I think it means the same to the other drivers, probably, but they downplay it obviously because the guys that are saying that may find themselves in the points lead or battling for it more often than I have been. It's been a long time since I was in the points lead. It's been forever -- I can't even recall the last time we were in the conversation for the championship. These things are really validating the effort and the work we've done."

That work ethic was on display at a test Wednesday at Road Atlanta, in oppressively hot conditions that Earnhardt said left everyone gassed. "It was as miserable as it could be," he said. But he and crew chief Steve Letarte still managed to find something that might help them next week at Watkins Glen International -- the kind of road course that's historically been a weak link on Earnhardt's resume.

"We worked hard, and we found some speed," he said. "We've been having those type of deals all year long where we're working hard, and there are some gains that are made. I've worked my tail off most of my career for little gains -- or, at times, no gains. So this year it's been awesome to go to the race track on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and work with Steve, and come away really happy with what happened. ... The points lead is sort of the symbolic piece to all that effort. The points lead recognizes all that hard work, for me."

This week marks Earnhardt's first time atop the standings since October 2004, when he seized the series lead after a victory at Talladega -- and then promptly lost it days later to eventual champion Kurt Busch after being penalized 25 points for cursing in a post-race television interview. Unlike that season, when Earnhardt won six times, his current advantage comes from grinding out a series-best 15 top-10 finishes and completing all 5,648 laps contested so far this year. He's gotten there the hard way, winning just once thus far, and to onlookers that process seems to have built a degree of resolve.

"I think his confidence is up," said Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "I think he believes in his team and Steve. Their personalities and confidence in one another was built. It's a great team over there, and it's a great facility. They really know how to step things up, but I think that it took a little while for those two to say, 'All right, I believe in you and you believe in me -- let's go work on this, and these are some things we've got to step up and do to be successful.' Whatever they've done is obviously working, and then you back that up with performance. There's no doubt those guys are going out every weekend, their cars are strong, they're running up front -- it's not a fluke. They are the real deal this year."

Even so -- with only six races remaining until the Chase field is determined, Johnson showed no hesitation when asked if he'd rather possess the points lead or his current tally of three race victories, which puts him in line to claim the top spot before the first event of the playoff. "Three wins," he said. Still, holding the points lead at the moment can pay dividends down the road, according to the five-time series champion.

"There's something there that helps you, that has helped me in the past," said Johnson, whose No. 48 team shares a facility with Earnhardt's program at the Hendrick complex. "And I think the team, once the Chase starts, any type of exposure to pressure from the crew guys, the over-the-wall guys, the driver -- that's all helpful. Because the Chase is so important, and the emotion -- you might dodge it for a week or two, or you might get deeper into the Chase before it finally hits you, but at some point it will. And the more exposure you have to that pressure, I think the better."

While it's lasting, though, many are certainly enjoying it. A Texas spokesman said the track has seen a 142-percent jump in ticket sales in the section where the two-for-$88 deal is available, compared to a year ago. And 80 laps into Sunday's event, Pocono president Brandon Igdalsky will draw the name of a spectator who will take home $100,000 should Earnhardt go to Victory Lane. Fans can register at souvenir stands, and the track has a giant-sized check ready to go. "I want to give it away," Igdalsky said. "I want to give the money away. It would be so much fun."

It's all fun right now, with the sport basking in the glow of its most popular driver holding the points lead. But finishing the season in that same position will require more work, and no one is more aware of that than Earnhardt himself.

On a career pace

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s numbers through 20 race speak for themselves
• Nine top-five finishes, matching his previous best in 2004. He finished with 16 top-fives in '04.
• Fifteen top-10s; his season high is 21 set in 2003 and '04.
• Average finish of 8.1; his best full-season average finish is 12.1 set in 2004.
• Twenty lead-lap finishes. Dating to last season, he has a record-sharing 21 consecutive lead-lap finishes.
• Second-best career Driver Rating of 102.0 that trails only the 102.6 of 2008.

"We're running well, but we need to win more races. We need to show up and be the fastest car more often," he said. "We've been quick, but in my opinion we've been the fastest guy only once or twice this year, and I don't know if that's good enough. I'm going to say it's not good enough. I know our team would like to win more races, and to be able to contend for the championship, our team needs another 10-15 percent."