Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2012 season, his fifth with Hendrick Motorsports, is going swimmingly thus far. His streak of 16 straight finishes on the lead lap has been vital to his current spot among the leaders in points.
Earnhardt's success throughout the season's first half has many wondering if this is the year he can finally break through. The two-time Nationwide Series champion has been chasing a Sprint Cup title for 14 years and appears closer to it now than ever.
The 37-year-old has matured in more ways than one this season, learning to work with and build a new relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte.
"I learned a lot from Mr. Hendrick on how to deal with people and with relationships, and the most important thing is to create your own relationship firsthand," Letarte said, via MercuryNews.com. "Dale and I did that. We sat down and went through what we thought the concerns were, the strengths were. We took a very methodical approach. We kind of walked before we could run and tried to run before we thought we could win."
The duo got running pretty quickly, posting a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 after starting fifth. Earnhardt's stat sheet has been littered with career-bests and broken dry spells since. He won his first race in 143 tries just a few weeks ago, snapping a four-year drought.
"I'm really excited because I think he's having fun and looking forward to the races. And that's all about your confidence," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "You just got to get in a rhythm where you can run good every week when you feel that way."
He can't lack much confidence at this stage as Jr. currently owns the sixth-best average start of his career (14.5) and his average finish of 8.4 is the best he's ever run. It's not even close between second place, as Earnhardt's previous career-best was 12.1 back in 2004 when he finished fifth in the standings.
In 2012, Earnhardt has yet to go down a lap at the end of a race, finishing all 16 contests intact and in contention. He's already led 218 laps, a total he hasn't surpassed since 2008, and we're not even halfway through the season.
Earnhardt's six top-five finishes in 2012 stand in stark contrast to the nine he posted between 2009-2011. He's running with the contenders on a weekly basis, having only finished outside the top-10 four times.
He's made a strong case this year in support of his comments from April, which ruffled some feathers. Earnhardt, when questioned, said he believed he was the best driver in the Hendrick stable.
“He had not said anything close to that before,” said Hendrick, via SportingNews.com. “He, as a matter of fact, would say, ‘Man, Jimmie (Johnson) is unbelievable, Jeff (Gordon) is unbelievable, Kasey (Kahne) is really fast. But when he came out and said I'm getting the job done, I'm the A horse in the stable right now, and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence, and that's what he needed.”
It was a bold claim, but one Earnhardt was ready to stand behind and prove.
“(Johnson) is a hell of a racecar driver,” Earnhardt said at the time. “But I feel like I’m the best. … I feel that I’m smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody—and I know a lot of people ain’t going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it.”
This newfound confidence partnered with career-best production has NASCAR's most popular driver breaking records off the track as well.
Merchandise sales on the series website skyrocketed after Jr. entered victory lane at Michigan. According to The Sporting News, No. 88 products, which normally account for about 25 percent of total sales, spiked to nearly 80 percent.
TNT has experienced a considerable jump in viewership since Earnhardt's win as well, with overnight ratings up 15 percent at Sonoma.
The Sprint Cup circuit will visit Kentucky Speedway this Sunday, where Earnhardt will look to improve upon his performance from last year. He started 29th and finished 30th in 2011, but with a new attitude and a rank of third in points, this one should go a lot different.
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