Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Sprint Cup point leader. That has a nice ring to it for Earnhardt Jr.’s millions of fans.
For the driver himself, however, the fact that he’s atop the standings for the first time since 2004 is more about putting a stamp of approval on the work he and his team have done to get there.
“It’s been a long time since I was in the points lead,” Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Pocono Raceway. “It’s been forever. I can’t even recall when the last time we were in the conversation about the championship. These things validate our effort and the work we’ve done.
“We’re working hard, and there are some gains that are made. I’ve worked my tail off for most of my career for little gains and, at times, no gains. So, this year it’s been awesome to go on the track [testing] on Tuesday or Wednesday and work with Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte) and come away really happy with what happened. I’m enjoying that.
“The points lead is sort of a symbolic piece to all that effort. The points lead recognizes all that hard work for me and the team.”
Earnhardt Jr. jumped into the point lead last week at Indianapolis as previous leader Matt Kenseth was enveloped in an accident and finished 35th. Junior leads Kenseth by 14 points entering Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono.
Earnhardt Jr. said his season results and the end to a long winless streak with a victory at Michigan in June illustrate the No. 88 team’s turnaround.
“I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered that I wouldn’t ever be competitive again,” he said. “Aside from winning a few more races, I don’t know how much more of a statement I could have made than we made this year.
“But that’s not quite as important to me as trying to make the best of this year and the final result being more wins and a championship. The closer we get to the Chase, the more real the opportunity seems. I know what I need to be focused on, and it’s not whether I got back at somebody or vindicated myself, but it’s what we need to be focused on this weekend and so forth.”
Although Junior is the current point leader, the standings will be reset for the start of the Chase in September, and Chase drivers with the most wins – currently Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart with three each – will move to the top of the list.
“We need to win more races,” Junior said. “We need to show up and be the fastest car more often. We’ve been quick, but we’ve only been the fastest guy once or twice this year.
“I don’t think that’s good enough. I know our team would like to win more races. To be able to contend for the championship, our teams needs another 10 or 15 percent.”
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.