When Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Junior Nation --€“ as the driver's massive fan base is collectively known --€“ was on Cloud Nine.

Although Earnhardt failed to win a race all year long and finished an unspectacular seventh in the standings, just being part of NASCAR's playoff was cause for celebration throughout much of the NASCAR world.

This was due to the fact that the two previous years -- 2009 and 2010 --€“ were the worst of the third-generation driver's career, at least from a competition standpoint.

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After making the Chase in 2008, his first year at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt finished outside the top 20 in points the next two seasons, leaving some to wonder if team owner Rick Hendrick should have hired the sport's most popular driver in the first place.

With his confidence at an all-time low, Earnhardt enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in 2011 when Hendrick decided to pair him with Steve Letarte, a homegrown crew chief who had enjoyed modest success the previous few years with another Hendrick driver -- Jeff Gordon.

Outgoing, fast-talking and almost always encouraging to his driver, Letarte quickly proved to be just the kind of pit boss that Earnhardt needed. And the relationship between the driver and crew chief only blossomed with time.

By the time Letarte moved on from Hendrick to join NBC's NASCAR broadcast booth in 2015, he and Earnhardt had won five races -- including the 2014 Daytona 500 --€“ in four seasons together.

Even more impressive was that Earnhardt made the Chase in each of his four seasons with Letarte, scoring a best championship finish of fifth in 2013.

So when it was announced that former Hendrick engineer Greg Ives would be Letarte's replacement for 2015, Earnhardt no longer needed a cheerleader in his ear on race day.

Instead, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet merely needed fast cars.

And that's what Ives -- an all-business-type personality who is far less gregarious than his predecessor -- has given Earnhardt in their first season.

With dominant wins at Talladega in May and Daytona in July, Earnhardt secured his place in the 16-driver Chase field long before the deadline for doing so.

Despite sputtering a bit over the summer months as the entire Hendrick organization competed in the shadow of a resurgent Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt enters the Chase feeling good about his chances of capturing his elusive first Sprint Cup Series title. He acknowledges the difficulty of the task that lies head, however.

"It's a process, man," said Earnhardt, who enters the Chase as the No. 6 seed, just six points out of the lead. "We're trying to speed it up as fast as we can with Greg and myself, and I'm pushing him to communicate with me and us build that relationship. It's so important to get it working right.

"We'll get better, you know. Even after this year and the year after that, I mean, we're just going to keep getting better. He's going to be a superstar, as Greg likes to say, so I'm glad to be able to work with him, and once our relationship really gets some legs, we're going to be great."

Even though the performance of the No. 88 car tailored off for several weeks after a dynamite start to 2015, Earnhardt believes his team is starting to climb again. And the results validate his belief.

The Kannapolis, North Carolina native finished the regular season with four consecutive top-10 finishes, including a hard-fought fifth-place result last Saturday night at Richmond.

While Earnhardt is clearly upbeat about the future, he's not discounting a serious title run over the season's final 10 weeks. Of the 10 Chase tracks, he's a past winner at six of them, and has been in the hunt for victories at the other four.

"We're going to try to do it this year," Earnhardt said of winning a championship. "We've got a lot of confidence, and I think our cars are getting better. We were kind of uncomfortable with where we were a couple weeks ago, but it's getting there. The whole company is working their guts out, working really, really hard. Real proud of the effort, and hopefully it's going to pay off for us in this Chase."

Unlike a few years ago, Earnhardt and his scores of fans are no longer content just making the Chase. They want to finally win the darn thing.

Just a few weeks shy of his 41st birthday, Junior also doesn't have as much time to capture the sport's elusive crown as he once did.

So why not now?

While he might not be the favorite to win it all, he's unequivocally in the mix. And that alone is enough to keep NASCAR fans highly engaged for at least the next few weeks.