Dale Earnhardt, Jr. shows newfound focus in Michigan win
With a win at MIS, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has shown the chops to contend for a title
Junior never allowed his competition to mount a legitimate challenge for a win
The road course at Sonoma has always been a challenge for Earnhardt, Jr.
For years, a favorite pursuit of NASCAR fans, media and others has been to probe Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s mind, searching for meaning behind his words and actions. Some amateur psychologists criticized his thinking. Others questioned his confidence. As his winless drought continued, so did the evaluations and recommendations.
After Earnhardt broke his four-year winless drought Sunday at Michigan International Speedway -- "we just whooped them really good,'' he said -- his actions revealed his mindset and what's next for NASCAR's latest winner.
What is clear is Earnhardt's focus. While it had been questioned by some throughout the years, Earnhardt has shown that he has the fortitude to compete for a championship. It doesn't mean he'll win the title, although some were ready to anoint him as champion Sunday, but it eliminates one obstacle toward capturing the crown.
Among the biggest questions that once stalked Earnhardt was his ability to make the car better in the second half of races. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have proved to be the right combination. Earnhardt led 80 of the final 100 laps at Michigan, losing the lead only during green-flag pit cycles.
It came a week after he ran better in the second half at Pocono until a decision to pit late backfired because of additional caution laps. That came a week after Dover where Earnhardt spent the second half of the race in the top five. That followed the Coca-Cola 600 where Earnhardt didn't climb into the top 10 until past halfway and stayed there the rest of the race.
Notice a trend from the driver who has the most top-10 finishes this season?
Earnhardt revealed more about himself in other ways Sunday, especially in the final 15 laps.
"I was just thinking, man, those laps could not go by fast enough,'' he said. "I was like -- I've got a big lead, I'm going to take it easy -- no, I want to run it hard, get it over with.''
Instead of the easy route, he was cut throat. He never allowed the competition to mount a challenge. It's what teammate Jimmie Johnson has done for years during the Chase, winning five consecutive titles.
Letarte, knows what it's like to face that. He was Jeff Gordon's crew chief in 2007 for the epic championship battle between Gordon and Johnson. Gordon had an average finish of 5.1 in the Chase and lost the title to Johnson, who had an average finish of 5.0.
Tony Stewart won last year's championship with a similar mentality. After going winless before the Chase, he won five of the 10 Chase races to win his third crown. Sunday, though, he couldn't catch Earnhardt. Neither could third-place finisher Matt Kenseth.
"That 88 has had a ton of speed,'' Kenseth said of Earnhardt. "They have been up there battling in the top five each and every week.
"And the championship part, I think they are definitely a contender. I think they have been right up there in the mix each and every race, no matter, you know, what size or shape of racetrack, so I definitely think they are, at this point in the season, one of the favorites.''
For those who still questioned Earnhardt's mindset, this past weekend might have provided the proof that Earnhardt could adjust and succeed. Record speeds, blistering tires, a tire change and a rain delay could have been enough to unsettle Earnhardt. It didn't. No doubt he wasn't happy about the tire change because he had been fast, but the 37-year-old showed his maturity and refocused. And took charge of the race.
Another sign of that focus is what Earnhardt forgot.
It was Father's Day.
His last victory before Sunday came on that day four years ago also at Michigan. Earnhardt noted that while he could not wish his dad a happy Father's Day then, he wished it to the other fathers.
Sunday, he said he hadn't thought about what day it was until asked about it in his news conference. He had other things on his mind.
When it was over, he could enjoy the splendor of winning. The crowd's roar when Earnhardt climbed out of his car in Victory Lane made him think of his fans not at the track.
"I felt the excitement and the emotion from them immediately, almost immediately,'' he said. "As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs and running out in the yard or whatever they do. I just wish I could see it all at once. That was the one thing I kept thinking about.''
As for him, the question was if he felt more relief at finally winning and no longer having to be asked when he would win again or just pure excitement.
"I thought it would be all relief but it was no relief at all; it was excitement,'' he said.
The celebration, though, has its limits. Earnhardt understands that with the series headed to the road course at Sonoma. Earnhardt has never had a top-10 finish there in his career.
Also, Earnhardt now is within four points of Kenseth atop the point standings. Even with that, there's no guarantee of what that could lead to in the Chase. No driver either first or second in the points at this point in the season has gone on to win the championship since Johnson did it in 2006.
"I don't want to get carried away,'' Earnhardt said of his victory celebration. "We have a great thing going. We want to be sharp, and I want to be sharp when we go to the next race. We have a tough one at Sonoma and we have a got like a chip on our shoulders to go there and run well because of struggles I've had at that place.
"We are ready for the next opportunity to win one, because this is fun. I feel like we were close, you know, so maybe we can get us a couple.''
If so, then people will be trying to figure out how to beat Earnhardt.