The last two weeks have seen a subtle but public change in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s on-track mentality and it could lead to his first win of the season.
Remember back in 2010 at the Texas Chase race when Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton scuffled on the backstretch, leaving both drivers in a clinch until officials could separate them?
At the time, industry insiders insisted that Gordon had lost his competitive edge and that a drastic change of character was needed to prove that he still had the fire to win at NASCAR's highest level. No one questioned Gordon's commitment after the fracas with Burton, and he his answered the critics without tarnishing his clean-cut persona.
Comparisons could be made between what happened in Texas two years ago and what's transpired the last two weeks between Earnhardt Jr. and teammates past and present in Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
Like Gordon and Burton before them, Earnhardt Jr. and Martin are two of the most respected and admired veterans in the garage. They're not known for aggressive outbursts and both would have benefited from a more combative approach during their careers.
Martin has long been nicknamed "The Gentleman" and has finished second in the championship five times. How many of those seasons would have resulted in a championship if only Martin was just a little more stubborn about track position?
And then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Much like Gordon in 2010, Earnhardt Jr. is mired in a long winless drought. His current streak of 133 isn't a record (that belongs to Michael Waltrip's 462 consecutive losses) but it must feel like it. Earnhardt could have benefitted from a more aggressive approach as well, most recently when he lost out to Kevin Harvick at Martinsville last April.
Earnhardt Jr. was leading the race with three laps to go when Harvick got past him. He could have put the bumper to Harvick but chose to race the no. 29 clean and victory to slip away.
Junior's last trip to victory lane was in June 2008 at Michigan.
What's my point? Find out after the jump!
Gordon's Texas outburst silenced the critics and he went on to experience a three-win renaissance in 2011. Earnhardt was more than displeased with the 53-year old Martin, saying that he ran into the back of the no. 55 because it was going too slow.
"I'm coming ten miles an hour faster off the top of the race track, you stay low," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Don't knock a half second off my lap time being a jerk about it. Stay low. You are going to get it in the next corner and the position is going to be yours. Don't pull up in front of somebody when they are going to come off the corner ten miles an hour faster."
Earnhardt silenced a lot of critics at Vegas by proving he's doing a lot more than just casually earning the biggest grossing paycheck in NASCAR. Don't let the demure personality and southern drawl fool you - Earnhardt wants to win more now than he ever has in his entire career.
He's tired of playing fourth-fiddle at Hendrick Motorsports, a trend that extends to Martin's three-year tenure from 2009-2011.
A fired-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be exactly what's needed to get NASCAR's most popular driver back into victory lane.