LONG POND, Pa. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back on top in NASCAR in something other than a most popular driver poll.
Earnhardt has soared into the Sprint Cup points lead days for the first time in nearly eight years and he might finally give his legion of fans a reason to cheer him for more than just his last name.
He's switched teams. Endured a massive winless streak. Listened to those who said he would never live up to the championship standards set by the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Yet, here is Earnhardt, parked in first place, his first Cup title at last on the horizon.
"I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I wouldn't ever be competitive again," he said Friday at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt is about as competitive as he's ever been in his five seasons with NASCAR's premier organization, snapping a 143-race winless streak in June at Michigan, and taking three fourth-place finishes in his last four races heading into Sunday's 400-mile race at Pocono.
He has found the winning formula in the No. 88 Chevrolet with crew chief Steve Letarte, and rediscovered a dash of confidence and bravado needed to sustain a championship drive at this level. He has the consistency (he's completed every lap) and results (15 top-10 finishes) that prove his success can last deep into the season once the Chase kicks off.
Earnhardt is keenly aware that leading the standings through 20 races means nothing compared to which driver holds the top spot after 36.
But it's been years since Earnhardt was a legitimate championship contender. So 20 races or not, he's enjoying the heck out of his time at the top.
"I think a lot of people downplay it," he said. "I think it means the same to those other drivers, probably, but they downplay it obviously because the guys that are saying that may find themselves in the points lead or battling for it more often than I have been. It's been a long time since I was in the points lead. It's been forever."
In fact, Earnhardt hasn't held a lead on race day since September 2004 when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
He leads Matt Kenseth by 14 points and is a lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. Earnhardt, however, could be bumped out of first once the field is reset when the Chase starts in six races. Teammate Jimmie Johnson, defending champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski all have three victories to Earnhardt's one checkered flag, meaning he'll have to dig deep for wins the next weeks or rally in the 10-race Chase.
"The points lead recognizes all that hard work for me and I think for the team," Earnhardt said. "I'll say what everybody else says, it's not the championship. Leading the points today isn't as awesome as winning the championship and going to Vegas as the top dog, but it does feel good 20 races in the year to have put more points on the board than any other team."
Earnhardt's success usually seems to give NASCAR that added oomph NASCAR needs in the dog days of summer when Olympics, pennant races and NFL training camps can knock the sport down a few pegs on the day's top headlines. Junior's success almost commands attention from even casual observers.
Tracks are ready to jump on Earnhardt's bandwagon.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage sliced Turn 4 grandstand tickets to only $88 for the Nov. 4 race. Pocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky is offering $100,000 if Earnhardt wins Sunday to a fan who enters a contest at various souvenir trailers, stands or tents located at the track.
"He's obviously one of the hottest drivers in the garage right now," Igdalsky said. "Him taking the points lead just made it that much better. Maybe we'll roll it over next year if he doesn't win."
Earnhardt's put the sport on notice that this is the year he can be a championship threat all the way to the end.
"I think his confidence is up. I think he believes in his team and Steve," four-time champion and teammate Jeff Gordon said. "Their personalities and confidence in one another was built. It's a great team over there and it's a great facility. They really know how to step things up."
Earnhardt's 143 races between wins was the sixth-longest streak in Sprint Cup history. Most drivers may not have been as fortunate to keep their jobs.
But not every driver has the cache of Earnhardt.
Winning it all would wipe away all the lean seasons for Earnhardt loyalists.
"The closer we get to the Chase," Earnhardt said, "the more real the opportunity seems."