When the question flew at him this month at NASCAR's media day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bristled. • Could he wreck the No. 3 car his dad made famous to win a race? • "I haven't wrecked anybody to win a race in a long time," Earnhardt said. "But we haven't won many races, either." • No, Earnhardt hasn't. His No. 88 Chevrolet has claimed one checkered flag in the past five seasons. • But after a disappointing run when NASCAR's most popular driver was outside the top 20 in points two years in a row, Earnhardt has regained his form. He has had three of the best seasons of his career and starts ninth at Daytona International Speedway in today's Daytona 500. • "Since I've been at Hendrick and spent more time with him, he's been super focused and aware of what's going on," Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said. "And that's shown on the racetrack." • It wasn't always like that.
After winning 15 races in his first five full Sprint Cup seasons, Earnhardt struggled. He missed the season-ending Chase for the Championship in 2005, 2007 and 2009-10. He sandwiched a 76-race winless streak and a 143-race winless streak around a checkered flag at Michigan in 2008.
His problems also had a negative impact on the sport as a whole. Andrew Maness of nascarnomics.com estimates that television ratings jump 5 percent the week after an Earnhardt victory; Chase ratings are also up slightly when Earnhardt is involved compared to when he's out of the picture.
Earnhardt finally turned things around in 2011, when he finished seventh in points. He's one of only five drivers to make the Chase each of the past three years.
"I've watched the (No.) 88 and watched Junior grasp things, really kind of help the company pull in and find the direction where to go," said Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR's six-time champion and Hendrick teammate.
In the past two seasons, Earnhardt, 39, ranks sixth in top-five finishes (20). His average finishing position, 11.8, is fifth. Only Johnson has more top 10s than Earnhardt (42).
And if NASCAR had used its new Chase format last season, and all the results had been the same, Earnhardt would have won his first Cup title. He finished in the top eight in eight of the last nine races and ended the season with three straight top-four showings to finish fifth in points — his best since 2006.
"I thought we had a good season and a real good Chase," Earnhardt said. "If we had some bonus points and some sort of a top-15 in Chicago (where he finished 35th in the first race of the Chase), it might have been a totally different year for us."
But the key for another strong season and competing for his first championship will come in the area where he has struggled: winning races.
His 55-race winless streak is the longest of any driver on one of NASCAR's five power teams. Earnhardt grabbed the pole at Dover and led 80 laps but still ended up second. He led 38 laps at Talladega and finished second. And he has settled for runnerup in the past two Daytona 500s.
"But none of those races did I have a situation where I went, 'Gah, I let it slip by,' " Earnhardt said. "I messed up right there. Most of the time we ran our guts out and came to the finish line and just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race."
So what happens if Earnhardt is battling Austin Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet? Will Earnhardt hold back against the number his dad made famous, at the track where he died?
"That wouldn't be a difficult situation for me at all," Earnhardt said. "I wouldn't think twice about who I'm racing on the last lap."
All that matters is a long-awaited win.
Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker[email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.