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He's different this year. When he talks to his crew chief in the garage, he's more animated than in seasons past, gesturing as he vividly describes what he's sensing during practice. When he's behind the wheel, he's making more video-game-worthy moves at 190 mph, driving with a sense of urgency, as if he knows his prime years are slipping away and he's running out of time to win. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a changed race car driver in 2013, and three weeks into the 36-race Sprint Cup season, he appears capable of achieving something this autumn that no Earnhardt has since 1994: seizing the Cup championship.
"I feel really good about everything that's going on with our team," Earnhardt, 38, said before the Daytona 500. "Our time is now."
If Earnhardt sounds confident, it's because he is. When he was mired in a 143-race winless streak from 2008 to '12, he questioned everything he did at the track—from what midrace adjustments needed to be made to his number 88 Chevy to whether he even belonged in stock car racing's highest series. But last year, in his second season with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt won at Michigan in June and briefly held the points lead in the summer. His challenge for the title was derailed by a wreck in October at Talladega in which he suffered a concussion that forced him to miss two starts in the Chase. But he was relevant again. This caused Earnhardt's self-assurance, which has been fragile since he was a boy growing up in the towering shadow of Dale Sr., to soar.
Yet the No. 1 reason that Earnhardt, who stands third in the standings, behind Jimmie Johnson and reigning champion Brad Keselowski, is flourishing in 2013 is the new car design that NASCAR introduced at Daytona last month. The so-called Gen-6 car has more rear downforce than the Car of Tomorrow, which NASCAR debuted in 2007 and, not incidentally, coincided with Earnhardt's five-year fade. The Gen-6 grips the track better through the turns and has similar handling characteristics to the Cup cars from 2004, when Earnhardt won a career-high six races and held the championship lead at the start of the Chase.
"The old Dale Jr. is back," Jeff Gordon said earlier this year of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "And that's good news for our entire sport."
It sure is. Earnhardt has been voted by fans as NASCAR's most popular driver each of the last 10 years, and his early-season success is one reason (besides Danica Patrick) that TV ratings for NASCAR's first three races have been strong. Earnhardt's popularity was a burden for him during that woebegone stretch from 2008 to '11, when his average finish in the standings was 15.4—"It was like I didn't deserve to have so much attention," he says—but now it's fueling his charge, as if he's driving with a newfound intensity to reward his followers' loyalty. It is a powerful motivator, a reason why the onetime three-day-a-week pizza eater recently underwent a 15-day toxic-purge diet dominated by prune and carrot juice.
And, oh, Earnhardt can drive. After struggling in the middle of the pack for the first 450 miles of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt pulled off a move that would have made his father proud: Running in fourth place behind Patrick on the last lap, he lifted off the throttle and dropped back to the front bumper of Mark Martin. As he received an aerodynamic push from Martin, Earnhardt pounded the gas to slingshot past Patrick and Greg Biffle—the maneuver recalled Ricky Bobby's "shake 'n' bake" move in Talladega Nights—to finish second behind Johnson. At Phoenix on March 3, Earnhardt started 21st, then methodically picked off drivers, winding up fifth at a track where his average finish in his previous 12 starts was 19.7. On Sunday at Las Vegas he ran in the top 10 all day and finished seventh.
"It is important that things continue to progress," Earnhardt says. "We can't sit there and say, 'All right, we're a top 10 team.' ... We've got to do things better."
Earnhardt spoke with a tone of determination. In fact, he sounded a lot like his daddy back in 1994, when he was on his way to winning the Cup.