Dale Earnhardt Jr. Oh-So-Close To Top 12 After Solid Run

For a moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought he had returned to the top 12 in points.

And he knew what that meant: The required interview with reporters for all drivers in the top 12.

"We get to talk in Daytona, right? Media av-ail-a-bil-i-ty," he said, stopping to enunciate each syllable.

But alas, it turned out Earnhardt Jr.'s eighth-place run at New Hampshire wasn't quite enough to get him back into a Chase berth with nine races until the cutoff. Instead, he's a mere three points away.

"That's what I thought," he said. "I was doing the math those last 10 laps, and it just didn't add up."

Really? He was adding up the points inside the car?

"Nah," he said, flashing a mischievous smile.

Earnhardt Jr.'s recent and unexpected resurgence has been akin to a cartoon character who was dogged by a dark rain cloud over his head that has been replaced with blue sky. Now that it seems to have been chased away, the sport's most popular driver is smiling much more often.

After six consecutive top-15 finishes early in the season, the 88 team plummeted in the standings with five straight races outside the top 15.

And now? Three finishes in a row of 11th or better, including a solid finish at the Sonoma road course where Earnhardt Jr. traditionally stinks.

"I think it's a good start to a turning point," he said, still cautiously choosing his words about the future. "I like running here and I traditionally feel like I'm a top 10 here every time we show up."

The car was solid throughout the race but had a flash of brilliance shortly before the halfway point. Unfortunately for Earnhardt Jr., it didn't quite last.

"I swear, we were really fast at one point in the race, but whatever we had, I gave to Jimmie (Johnson)," he said. "I wasn't as fast as I was before that (pit stop). Still happy. I like racing around the good guys, racing up there around Kurt (Busch) and Jimmie and all those guys that are right there with us. That's where I want to run every week."

The biggest difference lately, Earnhardt Jr. said, is that the car has been fast straight off the hauler at the start of the weekend. That means the team doesn't have to spend valuable time trying to search for something that would simply make it competitive; it can instead work to make the car even better.

For a guy whose team appeared to be on life support only a month ago – with fans calling for crew chief Lance McGrew's head – not many people expected this type of turnaround.

Did Earnhardt Jr.?

"I didn't expect it, but I'm really pleasantly surprised that it's happening," he said. "We've been working very hard, and sometimes it just bears fruit. I guess that's what's been happening for us. Lance has just been working really, really hard."

After Dover, Earnhardt Jr. said he was "lost" and seemed to question the ability of the team to provide him with good cars. But the key mistake of that race was Earnhardt Jr. pitting when he thought the car was broken.

It wasn't. Though emotion flowed at the time, he later took responsibility and the team moved on from there.

And a couple weeks later, things started to improve.

"Dover was a tough one, but that was my screw-up completely," he said. "There wasn't nobody to blame but me. The boys never had to question themselves in that incident, it was all my fault.

"Once I got my head screwed back on straight, we've been better."

Now he heads to the comfort of Daytona. Restrictor-plate races practically feel like a mini-vacation for Earnhardt Jr., because his confidence soars there and he feels little pressure to run well.

So the fact that he had a good race at New Hampshire left him grinning.

"Any time you're gonna race before 'Dega or Daytona or an off-weekend, you want to have a good run," he said. "Just so you're not miserable, cause I carry that shit with me for days and days."

Now, he said, "I can just enjoy the weekend."

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