DAN GELSTON,AP Sports Writer
LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — By the time Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached Victory Lane last season at Michigan, the win seemed as much inevitable as implausible.
One top 10 finish at a time, Earnhardt built and built before a four year and 143-race winless streak was snapped; a legion of fans sent into a frenzy as NASCAR’s most popular driver finally gave them all a reason to go wild.
Well, look who’s back on a hot streak.
And look what track’s on deck for the ol’ No. 88.
Earnhardt is set to roll into Michigan International Speedway, site of his last two Sprint Cup victories, enjoying a bit of a of a renaissance for Hendrick Motorsports. He’s in fourth place in the points standings (he finished 12th last season) and is coming off a third-place finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt can’t be blamed too much for being unable to pull out his first win of the season. No driver was going to beat his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, who led 128 of 160 laps en route to his third win of the season. Earnhardt was there at the end, though, battling Johnson off two restarts over the final 10 laps before finally yielding to Greg Biffle for second. He has two straight top 10s and three in his last four races.
Oh, did we mention he’s going to Michigan?
If Earnhardt was traded on Nasdaq, it’d be time to buy.
“Hopefully, we can do this throughout the summer and get ourselves in the Chase pretty comfortably,” he said. “We’ve got a little work to do to get to where some of the other guys are.”
Earnhardt can grab a cheat sheet from the guys working across the shop on Johnson’s No. 48. While the results — and certainly, the championships — don’t show it, Earnhardt and five-time champion Johnson have the cars built pretty much side by side at Hendrick’s shop. Earnhardt crew chief Steve Letarte and Johnson’s pit box guru Chad Knaus swap ideas, setups and a sneak peek other useful tidbits, if needed, before every race. While it’s hard to tell sometimes because Johnson could make the New York Yankees envious of titles won the past decade, Earnhardt and crew have benefited from the data sharing.
“They grow stronger and stronger each week,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a bright light on these guys and what they do week and week out. They’re strong and they elevate their teammates, as well. They’re great teammates. They help us out. We certainly do all we can to help them out and help them grow and get stronger.”
Johnson hasn’t done too bad, himself. He won his third race and his 63rd career Cup victory helped stretch his points lead to 51 over Carl Edwards.
He even survived a brief scare when the No. 48 had to make two attempts through post-race inspection because the car’s weight was a bit off balance on the first try. The car was allowed a few moments to settle and passed on the second attempt, a common courtesy, NASCAR said.
The issue was about the way to slow down Johnson on Sunday.
Earnhardt’s performance had tailed off a bit after opening the season with five straight top 10s, including two runner-up finishes. A five-race dip, with four finishes of 16th or worse, was next. At the rate he’s rebounded, those results could just be a blip that happens to just about every driver over the taxing 36-race season.
“We’ve been carrying momentum for a good solid year now,” Earnhardt said. “We started the year off this year off really good. We just had a lot of problems since then and just struggled to get good finishes. We are all right. We know what we need to do. Confidence is there. All the fans can rest assured we feel like we are on the right track.”
That’s a lot of fans considering Earnhardt has long ruled NASCAR’s most popular driver for a decade.
They hope to be there again cheering him on — at the track, at home, on Twitter — this week at Michigan. Or Sonoma. Kentucky. Wherever.
“They’re clicking,” Johnson said. “They’re doing a great job.”
Earnhardt expects to keep rolling straight into Michigan. Earnhardt’s 143 races between wins was the sixth-longest streak in Sprint Cup history. It was the 19th Cup victory of Earnhardt’s career and second in 159 starts for Hendrick Motorsports. He had 17 victories in 291 races for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
He wasn’t won since Michigan. But Earnhardt followed Michigan last year with three fourth-place finishes over five races and only a concussion that kept him out of two Chase races truly ended his championship hopes.
“It’s good to be able to run good again,” Earnhardt said.
Mix in a little of last year’s successes at upcoming tracks with a dash of this year’s contending runs and Earnhardt just might find himself yet feted in Victory Lane. Or maybe — try not to get too excited just yet Junior Nation — walk up to the banquet to deliver his speech as series champion.
Now if only Johnson would just get out of his way.
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