NASCAR At Texas Motor Speedway: Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Really 'Back?'

It's the most-asked question in NASCAR. It's asked of drivers, of the media and amongst fans: "When is Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to win again?"

That's a question which has been continually raised ever since Earnhardt Jr. last visited the winner's circle nearly four years ago, on Father's Day weekend 2008.

After a strong start to the 2012 season which has seen him finish in the top 10 four times in six races, lead more laps than he did all of last year and has him second in points, it would appear there might soon be an answer to the most pressing question in NASCAR.

That strong start has many pundits declaring Earnhardt Jr. is "back," meaning back to the form he showed from 2000-06 when he won 17 races and three times finished fifth or better in the championship standings.

But before we collectively walk down that road, let's remember something.

Six races don't define a season.

Earnhardt Jr. has shown in the past a penchant for starting off a year strongly only to backslide considerably as the season moved to its conclusion.

Just last season, for example, the same stories that are being written now about Earnhardt Jr. were being written then. At that time, Earnhardt Jr. sat third in points through 15 races and had come close to winning on a couple of occasions.

The most notable was at Martinsville, when with five laps remaining Kevin Harvick worked his way under Earnhardt Jr. and went on to collect the checkered flag with Earnhardt Jr. finishing second. And then a few weeks later in the Coca-Cola 600 when Earnhardt Jr. was leading on the final lap only to run out of fuel coming out of Turn 4.

However, this early-season success was soon followed by a return to the mediocrity that has engulfed Earnhardt Jr. for much of the past five years. In the remaining 21 races, he posted just four top-10 finishes, and while he did make the Chase, he ended the 2011 campaign seventh in points and winless for the fourth time in five years.

But to return to the question du jour, if Earnhardt Jr. is to win again, will it perhaps be Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway?

After all, it would somehow seem fitting that his now 135-race winless streak would finally come to an end on the same high-speed oval that was not only the site of his first Sprint Cup victory back in 2000, but at the place where two years earlier Earnhardt Jr. scored his first Nationwide Series win.

If not this weekend, maybe the streak will be snapped at Talladega, Richmond, Charlotte, Dover or Michigan – all tracks the Sprint Cup Series will visit in the next couple months, and all tracks where Earnhardt Jr. has found prior success.

But until that happens, and until Earnhardt Jr. is celebrating his 19th career Sprint Cup win – and only then – can we really declare that the sport's most popular driver is "back."

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