Earnhardt Jr. finds his swagger

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, signs...

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, signs autographs for fans before the start of practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2012 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (JEFF ZELEVANSKY/Getty Images/AFP)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:36 PM ET

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t always believe in himself, but he did always believe that hard work could overcome most anything else in a run for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Although he is still 16 races away from the ultimate test of that theory, Earnhardt has put himself in a position to make it happen.

With his fourth-place finish last week at the Brickyard 400 Earnhardt put his name at the top of the leaderboard and pretty much clinched a place in the NASCAR’s version of a playoff.

He has done it with consistency and confidence, two things that have not been part of his arsenal in past seasons.

Including his win at Michigan International Speedway in June — his first in almost four full seasons — Earnhardt has had only three finishes out of the top 10 in the past 10 races.

It is the result, he said Friday at Pocono Raceway, of the effort of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, and a new found confidence in his own abilities as a race car driver.

“The points lead is just a symbolic piece to all that effort,” Earnhardt said. “The points lead recognizes all that hard work for me and for the team.”

Earnhardt also knows, however, that there is still a long way to go before he can claim total redemption from several seasons of bad results. Remember this is the same driver who finished 25th in the championship in 2009 and 21st in 2010.

“It’s not the championship,” he said. “Leading the points today ain’t as awesome as winning the championship and going to Vegas as the top dog.

“But it does feel good 20 races into the year to have put more points on the board than any other team.”

Earnhardt is especially pleased that the questions about his ability to not only win, but compete against the top teams, have stopped.

“I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I would never 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.

“That’s really not even secondary, though — that’s not quite as important to me as just trying to make the best of this year and the final result being more wins and a championship.”

Earnhardt feels that he may have left the impression that he was not always working hard, but that never was the case.

“I’ve worked my tail off for most of my career with little gains, and at times no gains,” he said. “This year, it’s been awesome to go to a racetrack.”

His teammates at Hendrick are also looking at Earnhardt’s results this season and giving credit where credit is due.

“There is definitely a difference (this season),” four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. “I think his confidence is up. I think he believes in his team and (Crew chief) Steve (Letarte). It’s a great team over there. I think that it took a little while for those two to say ‘alright I believe in you and you believe in me, lets go work on this’.

“Whatever they’ve done is obviously working and then you back that up with performance. They are the real deal this year. Junior’s attitude, and his focus, and how hard he is working is all showing up.”

And five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said Friday that by taking over the points lead this late in the season, Earnhardt is telling the rest of the Cup garage that he and the No. 88 Chevrolet team are the real deal.

“At this point in the season it says a lot if you’re leading the points,” Johnson said. “And I think the fashion in which he’s done it ... is really impressive.

“We downplay things at times and maybe won’t give other drivers credit when they need it, but leading the points; I want to lead the points right now. I want to be in control. I think there’s a huge message sent by the points leader to the rest of the field.”

FINISH LINES

Scott Dixon is hoping a fourth win in Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy at Mid-Ohio will put him in charge of the season championship. So does Canada’s James Hinchcliffe, who trails fourth-place Dixon by just 15 points ... IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon along with NASCAR’s Juan Pablo Montoya will have their faces on select Kellogg’s cereal boxes this month.

Rolex keeping watch on 'good guy'

If Michael Shanks has his way, suspended NASCAR Sprint Cup driver A.J. Allmendinger could be racing in the Rolex Grand Am Series next season.

Shank, in an interview with FOX Sports columnist Lee Spencer, said that once Allmendinger is finished the NASCAR mandated “Road to Recovery” program and found fit to race again there will be a place for him on the Michael Shank Racing Rolex Grand-Am squad. Allmendinger won the Daytona 24 Hours this year with MSR and is a minority partner in Shank’s IndyCar program.

“He has to go through the Road to Recovery — which we all accept and we all agree with,” Shank said. “That process, I’m told, can take anywhere from a month to three months. We’ll be testing in Daytona in October and November with the Daytona prototype and some new stuff we have from Ford Racing coming. If that’s the case, as soon as NASCAR says it’s been satisfied, we’ll get him back in.”

Allmendinger was fired this week from Penske Racing’s No. 22 Dodge team after twice failing a drug test in July, but Shank has faith that Allmendinger just made a mistake and is a “good guy.”

“I still think the guy’s character should never be questioned and I’m going to support him,” Shank told FOX Sports. “I just want to tell all the fans, ‘Stick with A.J. Do not give up on A.J. He’s a good guy.”

 


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