Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he doesn’t expect to get much attention until he can win races this season.
Come on, now.
It’s not every day NASCAR’s most popular driver leads the Sprint Cup series points standings while heading into one of his most statistically strongest tracks.
Never mind Earnhardt is off to his best start of his NASCAR career and his average finish of 4.4 leads all competitors.
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And perhaps just overlook the fact Earnhardt is the only driver this season to have finished in the top-10 in all five races.
No, he hasn’t yet registered a victory yet this season, but Earnhardt’s ascension to the top of the standings has drawn plenty of attention entering Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“You know, if we go out and win some races, we’ll get credit where credit is due, but we ran well – we’ve gotten lucky, we’ve had good cars, we’ve worked hard,” said Earnhardt, who will start 17th.
“But everybody in the garage has done the same thing, and there are other guys in the series that aren’t doing anything who are flashier than we are.
“I wouldn’t expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is.”
Perhaps not, but the spotlight is never dim when it comes to Earnhardt, particularly when he is running well enough to prompt discussion of a first series championship.
Even though NASCAR fans have been inundated with discussion the past two weeks regarding Denny Hamlin’s back injury and Joey Logano’s run-ins with Hamlin and Tony Stewart, Earnhardt’s strong start to the season still resonates above the noise.
Drivers visiting the media center this weekend have faced countless questions regarding Hamlin, Logano and Stewart. Yet there have remained plenty of inquires about Earnhardt’s performance.
Asked if it was good for the sport Earnhardt was the points leader, reigning series champion Brad Keselowski quipped, “It doesn’t hurt, yeah.”
Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, said believed Earnhardt was “a little more relaxed, confident and enjoying the moment.”
“I guess two or three years ago there were some points where it wasn’t as much fun and he wasn’t as competitive and that is tough on anyone,” he said. “I see a lot more smiles and a lot more relaxed Dale Jr. than I have seen in the past.”
There is no reason Earnhardt’s mood should change this weekend.
While he has never won at Martinsville, Earnhardt has led more laps (868) at the track than any other. Martinsville is also tied for his most top-fives (10) and second-most top-10 finishes (14) among the tracks on which Earnhardt has competed.
Earnhardt finished third in last spring’s Martinsville race. Since becoming the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet in 2008 at HMS, he has seven top-10s at the track, including a pair of runner-up finishes.
Things didn’t always go so well at Martinsville for Earnhardt – he actually ran into an ambulance in his first race at the track – but with patience have come better results.
“The racing here is nothing what you imagine, even coming up through those style of race tracks,” he said. “It’s just really tough and hard racing, and you’ve got to pick your battles.
“But it’s a long race and you can really just take yourself out of it early if you’re not careful.”
A win is certainly not out of the question for Earnhardt, but victories have been hard to come by in recent seasons.
His win last June at Michigan snapped a career-worst 143-race winless streak. However, it was just last November when the series points leader (then Johnson) also won a race.
“I think we’re a better team than we were last year but still – I just feel like that we need to be winning races, we need to be running up in the top two or three all day long,” Earnhardt said.
“There’s just a little bit there for us to gain until I feel super comfortable and feel, I guess, like our statistics and our points position really reflect on our performance.”