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Year of good cheer

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who averaged 6.5 top-10 finishes in Sprint Cup in 2009-10, already has seven this year.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., who averaged 6.5 top-10 finishes in Sprint Cup in 2009-10, already has seven this year.

LONG POND, Pa. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed an extreme makeover on his sagging career. New shop. New crew chief. New team.

Now comes the best part for NASCAR's most popular driver.

Better results.

His winless drought is stuck on 106 races entering Pocono Raceway and the three-year mark of his last victory is closing in. Earnhardt, though, might finally have his career back on track after a string of underachieving seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.

His next win, especially if it comes soon, won't be a stunner because he has been one of the hottest drivers in the sport, boosting both his morale and his spot in the standings.

"We're not satisfied. We want to win races," Earnhardt said Friday. "I know those guys are itching to win and get into Victory Lane."

He's getting close.

Earnhardt thought he was going to win at Martinsville Speedway until Kevin Harvick passed him with four laps left. Earnhardt settled for second, which started a string of three top 10 finishes.

Then came heartbreak at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He led on the final lap before his gas tank ran dry; he finished seventh. Last week at Kansas, he was second again, giving him seven top 10s this season — one fewer than his 36-race total from a year ago.

Earnhardt has battled the frustration of being so close to taking the checkered flag with the pride of knowing he's running at the front of the pack. He has not won since Michigan in June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt was 12th in points that year, then finished 21st last year and 25th in 2009.

In any other sport, those kind of results can get you booed out of town.

But Earnhardt's legion of diehards have never wavered in their support, even as he slumped, and few sounds in sports can match the roar from the stands when No. 88 zooms into the lead.

They have reason to cheer this year.

Earnhardt pointed to all the changes at Hendrick for the reason he's third in points. His partnership with crew chief Steve Letarte, who previously called the shots for Jeff Gordon, has been an instant success. When the car struggles or falls a lap behind, they still find a way to keep the race from getting out of hand.

"I feel like it's a good relationship and going pretty good," Earnhardt said. "Just trying to protect it and keep it going that way."

Team owner Rick Hendrick has long tried to find the right formula to make Earnhardt as successful, or least in the same league, as teammates Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt remains upbeat that his first win in three years is on the way.

"It's great, it's not frustrating," he said. "I'm running good. That's great. It's where you want to be. Close. It's not winning. It's better than running damn 25th and 30th every week, I'll tell you that."

He's not satisfied, though. Earnhardt knows he has to win a race for fans and critics to believe he's really a contender.

Breaking through Sunday might prove he's for real. He's 0-for-Pocono — Earnhardt has five top fives in 22 races on the triangular 2½-mile track. But in his past five he hasn't finished better than 12th.

"We've had a lot of good runs, but the last couple of years haven't been that awesome," Earnhardt said.

If not Sunday, maybe next week at Michigan. His last win came there on June 15, 2008. Earnhardt has to believe his time to celebrate is near.

"I don't know that I've been the kind of person to be certain about anything," he said. "I'm not an assuming kind of person. I probably never felt that way."

.Sprint cup

Points standings

Through 13 of 36 races. The top 10 drivers plus two wild cards (based on wins) through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts.Back

1. Carl Edwards 485—

2. Jimmie Johnson 445 40

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 444 41

4. Kevin Harvick 442 43

5. Kyle Busch 425 60

6. Kurt Busch 414 71

7. Matt Kenseth 412 73

8. Tony Stewart 393 92

9. Clint Bowyer 391 94

10. Ryan Newman 382 103

Up next

Pocono 500, 1 p.m. Sunday, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway

TV: TNT

Year of good cheer 06/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 10:32pm]

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