Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been in this position before — last year at this time, in fact.
The question is: Can he take the next step?
The Sprint Cup Series enjoys one of its few off weeks this week. Forgive Earnhardt if he and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team choose to savor the moment.
Six races into the 2012 season, Earnhardt is six points out of the series points lead. He remains mired in his career-worse winless streak, but he is consistently running up front and contending.
This same scenario unfolded about this time last year and Earnhardt did manage to make the Chase for the Cup, but ended the year without a victory and seventh in points.
Time will tell if he maintain this level of performance for 36 races.
Earnhardt spoke recently about his confidence, his desire to give team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup win and what route he would have taken given the chance to start his career over again.
Question: A lot of people have been saying your confidence is at an all-time high. What do you think?
Answer: I don’t really know how to measure confidence but we feel pretty good about what is going on and what is happening to us and how the thing is going down. Some tracks you just don’t hit it on and we have a handful of those tracks but we are starting to run more consistently up front at more race tracks.
Hopefully, this year we have solved a few cases and we will just have to find out when we get to them. But yes, confidence is good and confidence is up real high. There are still some things we want to improve on and the races can’t come fast enough for our team right now because we are ready. We really like being at the track and being on the track, making laps and working hard.
Q: What would it mean to you to be the driver who gives Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup win?
A: We would love to win anywhere but we would like to be the team and I think all four teams would like to be the team that would win the 200th win for Rick. He does so much for everybody and rarely do you get an opportunity to give something back to him of this kind of magnitude.
Q: Many NASCAR drivers in recent years have come from various backgrounds. If you had to do it all over again, would have chosen the same route?
A: I think I would have gone the same route just because of the area I came from and where I want to be and I wouldn’t want to be too far from my family. And midget racing and that kind of stuff is not very popular in North Carolina so I would have probably done the same thing. There are some advantages to running USAC and stuff like that.
As far as learning great car control and driving on dirt and things like that, too, it helps you a lot. I didn’t have any dirt experience at all and to this day still really don’t have any. But I think that helps a lot as far as developing car control. There are advantages to driving a late model stock car, too, as far as the size of the car, and the weight of the car, and how similar it is chassis-wise and whatnot. So, you get a great feel for a stock car early on that you can’t really get from a USAC or an indoor sprint or anything like that.