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Seeded lower, Junior's confidence remains high

September 09, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Season-long improvement and consistency has Earnhardt ready to challenge for title

RICHMOND, Va. -- Turns out Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 wasn't some fluke of superspeedway good fortune, but a bona fide foundation for a NASCAR championship run and, at the very least, a signal of good things to come.

Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and team newcomer Kasey Kahne came through for owner Rick Hendrick, who confidently declared this preseason he expected all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to make NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Results in Chase years


"I think our chances are as good as they have ever been for me. ... We've got the team and everything really poised to make a run at it. "


Few, however, would have predicted that the resurgent but often inconsistent Earnhardt would lead the charge over teammates such as Johnson and Gordon, who have nine Cup championships between them.

But Earnhardt has led the way. And he has led convincingly -- the top-ranked Hendrick driver for all but two weeks in the 26-week regular season.

In past years, just qualifying for the Chase was a relief for Earnhardt, who always has had such heavy expectations to bear. But this past weekend at Richmond International Raceway, the sport's longstanding most popular driver did not appear merely relieved to qualify for the postseason.

* Post-Race Chase Reactions: Earnhardt

He is focused and feeling it -- pretty certain this may his best shot yet at his first Cup title.

"I think our chances are as good as they have ever been for me,'' said Earnhardt, who will be the seventh seed in the 12-driver Chase field.

"I've had some pretty good shots at it back in 2004 and 2003, but I think this is a better opportunity. We've got the team and everything really poised to make a run at it.

"You've got to put the guys that have won the championship at the top of the list for the people that are favorites. But we are in the conversation. And we're going to work hard to still be in that conversation at [the season finale in] Homestead.''

Although Earnhardt snapped a four-year winless streak this summer at Michigan, his title run hasn't been flash and dash, but cool and consistent. He had only two finishes outside the top-10 the first four months of the season. And he had only three sub-20th-place finishes through the 26-week regular season that concluded early Sunday morning in Richmond.

Ironically, his seventh seeding for the 10-race Chase that begins Sunday in Chicago is the lowest he's been ranked all year. He has been among the top three in standings for 19 of 26 weeks, including two weeks atop the points in August.

The difference this year, according to Earnhardt, is turning a top-10 car into a top-five car. It's in finishing off races, and in a trusting, close relationship between Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte.

"When he's [Letarte] got a fast car, they finish where they should,'' Earnhardt explained. "And when he doesn't have a good car, he squeezes a few more positions out of that potentially bad finish. That's kind of his thing, his MO. So I'm reaping the benefits of being with him.

"At this point with the way my team is and the chemistry we have got going on, we're able to turn things around in some races and finish better for at least better points -- more points and [a] better season.''

Earnhardt said this weekend he is so excited and optimistic about his chances at a title that he actually is having to consciously keep his emotions in check.

And it sure beats the alternative.

"We're all going over to Steve's house on Sunday and the team is going to get around each other and we'll talk about the season we've had, what expectations we've had,'' Earnhardt said.

"We'll be thinking about that all week. The opportunity we have, that I feel like I have as a driver to win the championship. That I feel like our team has to compete every week.

"I'm pretty sure by the time the race is about to start in Chicago, the energy level is going to be about as high as it needs to be, probably higher than it should be. You'll probably have to calm yourself down a little bit just to realize it's 10 individual races and you have to do your best in every single one."