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Career numbers propel Earnhardt to No. 1 ranking

Two challenges met. One remains. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who snapped a lengthy victory drought in June, has completed the long, nearly nine-year road back to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings.

Junior and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team truly can focus on the biggest prize, their first championship. And it’s certainly not a stretch to mention Earnhardt and championship in the same sentence.

“Give me a reason why not,” said crew chief Steve Letarte when asked for reasons why his driver could win the 2012 title.

Earnhardt is, in fact, on a career pace. His numbers through 20 races speak for themselves:

• Nine top fives, matching his previous best in 2004 

• Fifteen top 10’s 

• Average finish of 8.1 

•  20 lead-lap finishes.  Dating back to last season, he has a record-sharing 21 consecutive lead-lap finishes.

Earnhardt last officially led the standings on Sept. 19, 2004, following a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a span of 281 starts. He also sat atop the points after the Oct. 3, 2004 race at Talladega Superspeedway, but lost it midweek after a 25-point penalty stemming from a post-race Victory Lane interview.

“All season long we’ve been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we’ve done,” Earnhardt said following his Brickyard finish. He’s been outside the top five in points just once. “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.” 

Earnhardt snapped a four-year winless streak on June 17 at Michigan International Raceway. He’s finished in the top five in three of the subsequent five races with his only real stumble a 23rd on the course at Sonoma.

There’s no single key to Junior’s turnaround, which has been more like a continuing process. His first season with Letarte put the team in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ for the first time with a final finish of seventh. Pairing the No. 88 team in the same shop as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 – and a closer relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus – has paid dividends as well.

That association isn’t lost on Johnson, who may wind up being Earnhardt’s chief rival for the championship. “There’s a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it’s ever been,” said Johnson in his Indianapolis winner’s press conference. “I’m happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them and it’s a two-way street.”

It’s getting crowded at the top.

Jimmie Johnson’s third victory of the season – and record-matching fourth win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – creates a trio of drivers fighting for top seeding in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

He joins reigning champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. Each would begin the post season with nine bonus points, three points for each victory on top of a base of 2,000. Johnson, whose perfect 150.0 Driver Rating was the first in the series since the final race of 2010 (Carl Edwards), looks more and more like the competitor who won five consecutive championships.

Over the past seven races beginning with a fourth-place performance at Pocono Raceway, Johnson has a victory and four top-five and six top-10 finishes. Stewart and Keselowski also have won during that span.

Johnson, 36, makes no secret of his ultimate goal: eight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, one more than the seven of NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty was 42 when he won his last title; Earnhardt was 43.

“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been. We’ve had issues late in a race that’s cost us track position for a variety of reasons and that’s the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase,” said Johnson, who won for the 58th time, second among active drivers.

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