There was no question that one of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers not named Johnson or Gordon was destined for a breakout year, with visits to Victory Lanes and big-time championship contention. All the preseason polls and prognosticators promised it.
But the odds favored the new kid at Hendrick, Kasey Kahne. Instead, it’s Hendrick’s original “new kid,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is driving like a guy with AMP Energy in his veins.
While Kahne has been trying to emerge from under a race-day black cloud, Earnhardt’s on-track effort in 2012 is living up to the hype that’s made him NASCAR’s most popular driver for nearly a decade.
He’s leading laps, finishing races strong and getting mad when he doesn’t win and should. These are sure signs of a commitment and confidence that seemed to waver in recent years of high expectations and underachievement.
He heads into NASCAR’s first off week riding his best season start in his 14-year Sprint Cup Series career as he is ranked second in the standings — six points behind Greg Biffle.
“I don’t know what we have done and our team has done, really,’’ Earnhardt offered with a straight face Sunday when asked to explain the resurgence of his No. 88 Chevrolet.
“But I’m happy with the way our car is running. I think we (Hendrick Motorsports) actually have more speed as a group, as a whole, than we did last year.’’
Earnhardt hasn’t finished worse than 15th in the season’s opening six races and is coming off back-to-back third-place finishes, which he regards as near-misses, not overachievement.
The resulting average finish of 7.8 is his best ever through the first six races. His second place in the championship standings is tops even against his next-best start, in 2004, when he won two of the first four races, including the Daytona 500.
It’s easily the best start to a year he’s had since signing on with Hendrick, the sport’s most successful team owner, in 2008. Earnhardt made good on the high-profile, high-expectation pairing that year with only one finish worse than 15th from the Daytona 500 until June. He was ranked among the top five in the championship race for 25 consecutive weeks and spent the entire month of July second in the standings.
The high point of his season came with a win at Michigan that summer.
But he hasn’t won since.
And the fact is not lost on him.
“I feel pretty good,’’ Earnhardt said before the season, answering what’s become an old and anticipated — but fair — question of when he will win again. “I’m frustrated that we didn’t win last year, we came close. I’m ready to get back to that. I’m ready to get chances again.’’
Days later, Earnhardt nearly won his second Daytona 500 as he finished a mere two-tenths of a second off good friend Matt Kenseth’s bumper. Yet no matter how encouraging that was, it wasn’t good enough.
“You know, you do want to come in here and make sure the press knows that you wanted to win the race, because the press are going to tell the fans what you thought, and you don't want to give anyone the impression that you are fine running second, because I’m not,’’ an adamant Earnhardt said that night.
It was the kind of swagger and emotion more reminiscent of the 37-year-old’s early days on the circuit, when the massive crowds cheered because he was a threat to win every week, not because they were looking for signs of life.
This season, Earnhardt has led 75 laps in six races, more than all of last season, and already nearly half as many as he did in all of the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
After the race at Martinsville on Sunday, Earnhardt was asked, “What’s changed?” and second-place finisher AJ Allmendinger jokingly suggested that maybe Earnhardt and his team had started singing Kumbaya around the campfire.
Maybe, though, the fire within is just reignited.