Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on top of the world. Well, at least his particular part of the world.
Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth Sunday in the Crown Royal 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and replaced Matt Kenseth atop the Sprint Cup point standings. Kenseth was involved in an accident in the second half of the race and finished 35th, dropping to second in the standings.
The day’s results put Earnhardt Jr. in first place in points for the first time since September 2004. He leads Kenseth by 14 points.
He’ll need to win more races to stay in first place for the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but, considering some of the struggles Junior has faced since arriving at Hendrick Motorsports, Sunday was a landmark day.
“You run in the top five and the top 10 enough times, you get enough points,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his new ranking. “We’d like to win some more races. We’ve got to work hard for that.”
Earnhardt Jr. didn’t lead a lap Sunday, but he raced in and around the top 10 virtually all day, continuing the brand of consistency that has had his team in the top six in points all season. In the past nine races, Junior has had a win, four fourths, a sixth and an eighth.
“We just had some good fortune starting on the inside those last restarts,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We probably had a fourth-to-eighth-place car, but the restarts lined up well for us.
“My car was fast. I was trying to pass (Greg) Biffle there but couldn’t get around him [for third].”
Junior now has 15 top-10 finishes in 20 races, and nine of those runs have been in the top five. Jimmie Johnson, Sunday’s winner, is the only other driver with as many as 15 top 10s, and Johnson is the only driver with more top fives (10) than Earnhardt Jr.
With six races remaining to the Chase cutoff, Junior is well-placed to have a solid position in the playoffs, although he needs a second or third win to start the post-season near the top of the standings.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.