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Sunday, April 7, 2013
Yes, it can happen.
Yes, it is possible.
Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be leading the Sprint Cup points standings - and have very few people talking about it.
As Joey Logano riled up Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart two weeks ago in California, fueling debates about blocking tactics and silver spoons, Earnhardt quietly scored a runner-up finish to seize the points lead from defending champion Brad Keselowski.
Even just five races in, that's typically cause for a parade.
Not this year, though. Despite finishing seventh or better in every race this season, Earnhardt arrives at one of his favorite tracks this weekend almost as an afterthought.
And it doesn't bother him a bit.
"Completely the opposite," said Earnhardt, voted the sport's most popular driver 10 years running. "I feel like it gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do. We're still not ... winning races, and I don't expect to get much attention until we can win races."
Although he has never won at Martinsville, Earnhardt annually is listed among the favorites to break through. He placed third in the spring race here last year. In the spring of 2011, he finished runner-up after refusing to try to bump his way his way past Kevin Harvick in the closing laps.
He's confident and comfortable now at "The Clip," but it hasn't always been that way. Earnhardt vividly remembers running into just about everything - including an ambulance - in his Cup debut here back in 2000.
"Yeah, the ambulance wouldn't move," he said. "So I had to give him a bit of the bumper."
He was, however, proud of one moment in that race - restarting on the inside while a lap down and speeding away from the race leader.
On the ride home that day with his Hall of Fame father, he tried to boast about that feat.
"All Dad wanted to talk about was how much I ran over," Earnhardt said, "and how I needed to really learn how to run better on the short tracks."
Gradually, he did. In 2002, Earnhardt began a string of five consecutive top-5 finishes at Martinsville. He has added five more since then.
"It took me a few trips to really learn to be more patient, to let the race sort of come to me," he said. Learning "that the track is going to come and go, the balance of the car is going to change, that you can't do all your work in the first 100 laps. You've sort of got to wait out the competition and let your crew make good choices."
Earnhardt credits the sound decisions of his current crew, led by Steve Letarte, for his early-season success this year. He was running outside the top 10 at both Bristol and California until late-race pit calls helped him jump up near the front.
While he doesn't feel like he has the fastest car out there every week, he's hopeful that will change.
"We've got time in the season to get there," he said. "And we did that last year; we got faster throughout the season. And by mid summer, we were really one of the best teams out there, I thought.
"So I've got good confidence in the team that we're going to be able to gain what I think we need to gain to be able to compete once the Chase comes around."
That's what it's about, after all: trying to win a championship. And if the beginning portion of the 2013 season has been mostly about Danica and Denny, "Smoke" and "Sliced Bread," that's really not so bad.
"If we go out and win some races," Earnhardt said, "we'll get credit where credit is due."
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