NASCAR At Kentucky 2012: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., What's Next?

After a win at Michigan and a hiccup at Sonoma, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants a solid run at Kentucky Speedway to prove to himself and his team that this NASCAR season is different than the rest.

Earnhardt Jr. said he typically has a good start to the year, struggles in the summer and then picks up his performance again toward the end of the season. But with this being his best and most consistent Sprint Cup Series season ever so far, the Hendrick Motorsports driver doesn't want to experience a summer letdown this time.

"I'll be surprised if we don't run competitive and have a top-10 car at the least this weekend," he told reporters Friday at Kentucky. "If we don't have that kind of a competitive car, I'll be a little disappointed and concerned about where we're headed and what we're doing."

Last season, Earnhardt Jr. finished 30th at Kentucky after a blown tire capped off what had already been a disappointing night. He could never find speed or gain the track position he needed in that race, and was subdued in a post-race interview afterward.

"I didn't run as well as I thought I would here last year, and I don't really know exactly why," he said. "I think we're better this year."

This summer has obviously been better than usual for Earnhardt Jr. After last season's Pocono race, the driver was within 10 points of the Sprint Cup Series lead but then plummeted to eighth in the standings over the next four races. This year, the driver's Michigan win has allowed him to maintain a comfortable position inside the Chase despite not running how he wanted to at Sonoma.

Earnhardt Jr. said the No. 88 team evaluates itself after every race, focusing on "whether what we're doing is working and the path we're headed on is the right path."

"I feel like we just need to maintain our course," he said. "It's been a pretty good summer so far. If we can keep that going, I'm going to be really excited for the rest of the season."

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