(SportsNetwork.com) - With two wins to his credit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having one of his best seasons in the Sprint Cup Series this year.
Not since a decade ago has Earnhardt won more than one race in a season, and his devoted fan club, "Junior Nation," is in its glory right now. NASCAR's most popular driver (11 consecutive seasons) has become a strong contender for the championship this year.
Earnhardt claimed his second win of the season on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, passing Brad Keselowski for the lead with just five laps to go while Keselowski was dealing with an overheating issue due to a piece of trash that got stuck on his front grille. Earnhardt began the season with a victory in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.
After joining Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 team in 2008, Earnhardt endured long periods without a win. He had just two victories in 178 races with the team prior to the start of this season. Both of those wins came at Michigan, where the series is scheduled to compete next weekend.
Earnhardt, who turns 40 years old on Oct. 10, can now shrug off the critics who have doubted his abilities and considered him overrated.
"I don't worry about that as much anymore," Earnhardt said of those who have criticized him. "I'm turning 40 this year, and the overrated talk is way behind me. That used to bother me when I was younger, but when you get old, you don't really care anymore about those kind of things. You just kind of go along and do your job and enjoy what you're doing, and I've got to really maximize what's left of my career and have as much fun with it as I can, try to enjoy it as much as I can."
With the win at Pocono, Earnhardt moved from fifth to third in the point standings. He is presently 22 points behind leader and teammate Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt also has finished in the runner-up spot three times this season (Phoenix, Las Vegas and Darlington) as well as a third-place run at Martinsville. Earnhardt finished 43rd at Texas, a race delayed one day due to rain, after crashing in the early going. He had dropped to sixth in points, his lowest ranking of the season.
"We've been fast every week," he said. "I don't think we have peaked as a team performance-wise, but we're certainly at our highest ceiling. We're doing some of our best work certainly right now. We have a lot of passion, and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve's last year. I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can."
The last time Earnhardt won more than one race during a season was in 2004 when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He scored six victories that year, including his first Daytona 500 win.
Earnhardt and his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, as well as Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano are those drivers who have multiple wins this season. All of them are guaranteed a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship as long as they finish in the top 30 in points when the regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond.
"When we won at Daytona, it made the rest of the year a lot more relaxing, a lot easier, less stress and it makes it fun, because you can just go to the racetrack and just race and not worry about points," Earnhardt said. "Having two wins now is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team, and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase."
Earnhardt has been in the Chase each year since he was paired with crew chief Steve Letarte in 2011. Prior to the start of this season, Letarte announced that he will leave Earnhardt's team at the end of the year and join NBC Sports for its coverage of NASCAR next season.
It appears Earnhardt and Letarte's last year together has become their best one with one another.
"We're having a blast. We're having fun," Letarte said. "We're winning races, and we enjoy each other's company. I don't think we have any internal issues within the race team."
But has Earnhardt's team become just as good as Johnson's No. 88 team, the six-time and defending series champions?
Johnson was winless in the first 11 races this season before claiming back-to- back victories at Charlotte and Dover. He finished sixth at Pocono, rebounding from an accident he had with Marcos Ambrose on pit road just before the halfway point.
"They (Johnson's team) just came off of two straight wins, and everybody was about to crown him the champion," Earnhardt said. "Two weeks before, they were wondering what the hell was wrong with him, and then two weeks later, he's the best thing on the block. We just got to keep everything in perspective. Jimmie is an awesome teammate. We're successful because of their success and vice versa. I think we really work well together.
"They're the 48 and we're the 88, and I don't want to be the new 48. I want to be the new 88. We'll definitely try to continue to work hard and try to win some more races and try to leave our own mark and not a mark similar to anyone else."
This coming Sunday at Michigan, Earnhardt will attempt something he has never done in his Cup Series career -- win back-to-back races.
"That would be awesome," he said. "I haven't done that since the Nationwide days back in '99 (South Boston, Virginia and Watkins Glen, New York)."