Dale Earnhardt Jr. A Legitimate Contender To Win 2012 NASCAR Championship

Just last year, Carl Edwards put together a fantastic season where he was atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings for 24 weeks and missed out on winning the championship by a single point. He accomplished all this with just one win.

As hard as it may to believe, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is actually on pace to surpass Edwards' point total from a year ago.

Through 14 races this season, Earnhardt Jr. is averaging 36.6 points a race, more than a full point better than Edwards' 35.5 average from 2011.

If – and that is a big if – Earnhardt Jr. can continue to perform at the level he has thus far, there is no reason to think he won't be contention to win the same championship his famous father did seven times over regardless if ever again finds Victory Lane.

All of which makes it possible that Earnhardt Jr. could be in fact the first driver to win the championship without winning a race.

It sounds crazy, but despite a winless streak that will reach four years this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. and his team are legitimate championship contenders even without a trip to Victory Lane.

Though he still has a zero in the win column, Earnhardt Jr. now has what it takes to win. A few years ago, he didn't.

"I feel better right now than I have in the last several years when we weren't competing well and we weren't running well and we had to answer as to why we weren't winning," Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday at Michigan. "We were miles from winning. We were so far away from being able to compete and win a race and be competitive enough to win a race, that it was a tough question to answer.

"Now, it feels like it's right around the corner, so I'm getting more and more excited the more we run this year."

The driver has reason to be excited about more than just a race win. The championship isn't unrealistic with the way his team is running.

While in years past Earnhardt Jr. may have won multiple races and was high up in points at year end, what Earnhardt Jr. has always been missing are the two things he now has in spades – teamwork and consistency.

Gone are the days when Earnhardt Jr. would snipe with whoever happened to be calling the shots in the pits for him. There are no more heated exchanges about what adjustments to make, how many tires to take or whether Earnhardt Jr. himself is giving 100 percent behind the wheel.

In its place is the reassuring "I'm in complete control and I know what I'm doing"-type guidance and direction that Steve Letarte has brought to the No. 88 team since being named crew chief in the fall of 2010.

"There are a lot of great things going on between us and that has a lot to do with our success, too and how important it is to keep that attitude and relationship good and healthy," Earnhardt Jr. said.

And in terms of consistency, no driver has more top-10 finishes than Earnhardt Jr. does this season. He's already only one top-10 shy of his total for the entire 2011 season, when he made the Chase.

Thanks to the consistency he's shown on the track and the synergy with his crew chief off of it, Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings just past the halfway point to the Chase cutoff and sits only 10 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. At this point in the season, he should very much be viewed by the rest of the garage as a championship contender – despite the 0-143 noose around his neck.

This begs the question: Should a driver who hasn't won a race in nearly four years be held in such high regard as a title contender?

Yes. And it's a statement Earnhardt Jr. himself agrees with.

"We have put together a lot of great, consistent races and we're second in points right now," he said. "So if we can put together this type of performance in the Chase, I don't see why we can't consider ourselves with an opportunity to challenge for the championship."

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