LONG POND, Pa. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back on top in NASCAR in something other than a most popular driver poll.
Earnhardt has soared into the Sprint Cup points lead for the first time in nearly eight years and he might finally give his legion of fans a reason to cheer him for more than just his famous last name.
He’s switched teams. Endured a massive winless streak. Listened to those who said he would never live up to the championship standards set by the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Yet, here is Earnhardt, parked in first place, his first Cup title at last on the horizon.
“I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I wouldn’t ever be competitive again,” he said Friday at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt is about as competitive as he’s ever been in his five seasons with NASCAR’s premier organization, snapping a 143-race winless streak in June at Michigan, and taking three fourth-place finishes in his last four races heading into Sunday’s 400-mile race at Pocono.
He has found the winning formula in the No. 88 Chevrolet with crew chief Steve Letarte, and rediscovered a dash of confidence and bravado needed to sustain a championship drive at this level. He has the consistency (he’s completed every lap) and results (15 top-10 finishes) that prove his success can last deep into the season once the Chase kicks off.
Earnhardt is keenly aware that leading the standings through 20 races means nothing compared to which driver holds the top spot after 36.
But it’s been years since Earnhardt was a legitimate championship contender. So 20 races or not, he’s enjoying the heck out of his time at the top.
“I think a lot of people downplay it,” he said. “I think it means the same to those 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.”
Allmendinger in for rough ride
Days after he was dumped by Penske Racing, A.J. Allmendinger found plenty of support from the drivers in the garage.
The backing of his peers was the least of his problems.
It’s the prospect of a driver who has never won a Sprint Cup race and flunked a drug test trying to coax another major sponsor and owner to give him a second chance at Cup racing. He may return to the sport, just never again with a ride like he had at Penske.
“I think he’ll be back in a Cup car. Will it be a good Cup car? I don’t think so,” driver Denny Hamlin said.
Allmendinger was thrust from NASCAR obscurity into infamy once NASCAR suspended him indefinitely for a positive drug test in late June. Team owner Roger Penske fired Allmendinger this week and gave pinch-driver Sam Hornish Jr. the keys to the No. 22 for the “foreseeable future.”
Hornish has an unexpected second act at Penske because of Allmendinger’s misfortune. This time, Hornish plans to keep the ride for this season and beyond.
“It’s been an interesting month, that’s for sure,” Hornish said.