INDIANAPOLIS – So look who is leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings – none other than “Fan Favorite” Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
While Jimmie Johnson’s fourth win in the Brickyard 400 was historic the biggest cheer from the crowd came when it was announced over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Public Address System that Earnhardt had taken over the points lead with his fourth-place finish in Sunday’s race. Combine that with Matt Kenseth’s 35th-place finish after he was involved in a crash with Joey Logano late in the race and Earnhardt has a 14-point lead over Kenseth heading to next Sunday’s race at Pocono.
It’s the first time Earnhardt has led the points since September 19, 2004 following the first race in Chase history at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"We were really excited about our car the first run,” Earnhardt said afterwards. “I’m happy with how it was driving. I don't know how fast the leaders were, but I thought the car had excellent speed and drive-ability. We messed with the balance a little bit throughout the race. It wasn't perfect at the end. I think we got the best we could with car, and the speed that we had. I'm happy with that. My teammate got the win (Jimmie Johnson). We had a good run. I would like to win here, but I'm going to have to wait until next year."
It was Earnhardt’s career-best finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as three of the four Hendrick Motorsports cars finished in the top five led by Johnson’s victory, Earnhardt’s fourth-place and Jeff Gordon’s fifth-place finish.
But it’s also another example of Earnhardt’s outstanding consistency this season with nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
“I'm proud of that because it says a lot about our body of work,” Earnhardt said while standing on pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following the race. “All season of long we've been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we've done. I'm proud of that. I have felt that way about our position in points all season long. We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it. We'll just have to see. We'd like to step it up just a little bit more."
Earnhardt raced with patience on Sunday after starting way back in 20th position.
“I tried to remind myself to run smooth laps,” he said. “It really didn't do me much good at the end, but I was trying to get to Greg (Biffle), but I just could not do it. I just tried to be smart. Not cost myself any positions getting frustrated. I think we had a good enough car to keep it pretty calm.
“We were looking forward to this race. I wanted to run well here. I want to win this race. I want to get a trophy here and go to Victory Lane. One of our teammates was able to do that so we are proud for the company. We're happy with a finish. We want to win races; we want more. We are ready to start seeing a little bit more materialize for us. We're really happy with what we are doing. Trying to keep our minds focused on what is working for us. Try to figure it out."
While Earnhardt was trying to figure out what it takes to actually win at the Brickyard, crew chief Steve Letarte was standing down pit road talking about the remarkable season that Earnhardt is enjoying. It’s a season where he broke the longest winless streak in his career dating all the way back to June 2008 when he drove to victory at Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day.
“I think they stopped cheering for us after we won at Michigan,” Letarte joked. “Everyone was happy we won at Michigan but they aren’t cheering for us anymore. It’s nice to have speed and the 48 (Jimmie Johnson’s team) had speed today. I would have loved to have lined up close to them to compare speed but I don’t think we had more. Speed is a good thing. Now we go to Pocono and looking to go there and get another trophy.”
Letarte believes this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup championship could be fought out between Johnson and Earnhardt.
“This race right here is a big race and the cream usually rises to the top at this race,” Letarte said. “To have a 1-4 finish out of our building and a 1-4-5 finish for the boss (Rick Hendrick) we feel good but feeling good in August doesn’t guarantee success in November and we know that.
“We just want to compete week-in and week-out and I feel like we are doing that.”
Letarte believes all four Hendrick drivers are “plugged in” and that has helped the entire effort succeed at this point in the season. While Johnson and Earnhardt will be in the Chase, Gordon has yet to win a race this season and is 15th in points. Gordon needs to get at least two wins to contend for one of the two Wild Card positions but Letarte believes he can still accomplish that between now and the cutoff race at Richmond in September.
As for Earnhardt, Letarte believes there isn’t an oval on the schedule that his driver can’t win at.
“I’m proud at the effort Dale has put in and he has done everything we have asked him to do,” Letarte said. “I can’t think of a driver more deserving to lead the points than Dale Jr.”
A confident Earnhardt could be quite a contender for the Cup title. Imagine the drama if the championship comes down to Johnson and Earnhardt battling each other for the title.
To Earnhardt, that’s a “Dream Scenario.”
“We would actually rather us two to fight for the championship at the end knowing one of us is going to get it for the company,” Earnhardt said. “If I could line that up right now, I would. That is how I'd have it."