Everyone knows I was pretty hard on Dale Earnhardt Jr. the past couple of years, saying he lacked focus and was more worried about his interests outside NASCAR than actually driving his race car.

It wasn’t meant to be mean-spirited. It was merely an observation, and his stats and aloof demeanor proved as much.

However, the Dale Jr. who showed up at Daytona Speedweeks in February was an entirely different person and driver. He was the Dale Jr. we all had been waiting to see. While I obviously can’t take any credit for the renewed focus NASCAR’s most popular driver has exhibited this year, I can take enjoyment in watching him evolve and mature. I’m happy to eat crow on this one.

Whether you’re a Dale Jr. fan or not, you can’t deny the renewed hunger and desire he has shown in 2012. I talked to some of his crew members at Bristol a couple of months ago, and they too said he has been very intense and involved with every aspect of his team.

He arrives at the track early and is one of the last drivers to leave.

He and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team are doing everything necessary to establish themselves as a championship-contending team. His disappointment at losing at Pocono two weeks ago was written all over his face in his post-race interview. You also heard the passion in his voice when he told crew chief Steve Letarte that he better not run him out of fuel. Although they had a car capable of winning, they were forced to play it safe to ensure against running out, making the loss that much harder to swallow.

Junior has had a few near-misses with Victory Lane the past year – think back to him nearly winning the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 before running the tank dry on the last lap, or nearly winning at Martinsville. There also have been a few heartbreaks this season, Pocono included, so for him to come back and win the next week at Michigan was awesome. Junior didn’t let the disappointment of the previous week derail him, so I wouldn’t count him out as a serious contender for the championship for the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. He really wants it, and it shows. Congrats, Junior.

Oddly enough, Tony Stewart was one of the few not congratulating Junior on Sunday. In fact, Stewart either has taken Kurt Busch’s place or has become the Grinch in the garage. What was up with his reaction to Junior breaking his winless streak? You think he’d be happy for the guy. Maybe we’ll all remember Smoke’s interview at Michigan if Danica Patrick ever wins a race.

I still think the world of Stewart, though, although I was puzzled by his statements, because those two are pretty good friends. I’m guessing Tony had something else on his mind bothering him or that happened during the race, and it carried over to his post-race comments.

For the rest of the competitors, Junior’s victory was a popular one. I remember back to when Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the 1998 Daytona 500. I was in that race and remember everybody, including the drivers, being so proud to be a part of NASCAR at that moment. We all knew how much old man Earnhardt wanted to win the Daytona 500, and we all appreciated what it meant to him, just as the drivers last weekend recognized the significance of Junior’s feat.

One thing Junior no longer has to worry about is squeaking into the Chase on the wild card provision. There are several drivers battling over those final two spots, and as a result, I think we’ll see some outstanding racing the next few weeks. Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. don’t have a win to their credit yet, and potentially could fall out of the top 10. In positions 11-20, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, 12th and 13th, respectively, have one win apiece, but nipping on their heels with victories of their own are Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne in 15th and 16th. Heck, we could even see Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya bust out a win at Sonoma or Watkins Glen or both, so the plot thickens.

Top-10 finishes aren’t going to help these guys get in the Chase. Only winning will. So the stage is set for some great battles between now and Richmond.

Jimmy Spencer calls it like he sees it on NASCAR Race Hub on SPEED. He retired from driving with two NASCAR Sprint Cup, 12 NASCAR Nationwide and one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory, putting him in an elite group of drivers who have logged wins in all three of NASCAR’s premier divisions. In 478 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, Spencer amassed 28 top-five and 80 top-10 finishes. He won back-to-back NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championships in 1986 and 1987 on the heels of 15 victories, becoming the first driver ever to earn consecutive titles in the series. He earned the nickname “Mr. Excitement” for his flamboyant and aggressive driving style early in his racing career.