THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- It is probably the perfect time and place for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to go racin' today in NASCAR's Pure Michigan 400.
He has just recently fallen from the Sprint Cup Series points lead on the basis of his two worst finishes of the year. Jimmie Johnson is the leader now, albeit by the narrowest of margins, but he and crew chief Ron Malec have proved many times that they know what to do once they get a grip on the top slot.
Michigan International Speedway, however, is not home, sweet home for Johnson, although he'll start today in the second row. He has 58 career wins, but MIS is one of only five tracks on the circuit where he has never visited Victory Lane.
Earnhardt has won here twice, including a dominant performance in which he pretty much blew away the field during June's Quicken Loans 400.
It is one of his 15 top-10 finishes in 2012, a remarkably consistent record by any reckoning. But he came here rather subdued, June's wide smile wiped off his face by the last two races and with his ability to win a championship again being questioned.
Earnhardt was born with a name and a father's legacy that cuts him very little slack. He moved to Hendrick Motorsports because he didn't think the team once owned and named for his daddy provided the same resources and opportunity.
Forget the money, forget the fame, forget his marketability, forget his immense popularity. The name of the game is winning races, stockpiling points and chasing the Chase, the late-season series of races for the championship. It's about respect, in his case about living up to the name.
Johnson has won five championships. Earnhardt is poised, and in his best position ever, to make a run at his first. He's fourth in the standings, just 17 points behind, but he knows he's been driving in the wrong direction the past couple weeks.
"There is a little bit of pressure, I guess, because people know I did so well the last time [here] that they are going to focus on me a little bit more this weekend," Junior said. "I feel pretty comfortable we will be fast. We should be able to go out there and compete for the win. If we don't, I'll be pretty disappointed."
Earnhardt joked that the car's setup would be "pretty much the same. All we did was wash the car. I don't think we even touched it since then."
They painted it, going from that old Earnhardt black to blue and white. And after a Friday morning practice session that produced only the 22nd fastest speed, his crew about tore the thing apart.
It made no difference. During qualifying later in the day, Junior's 195.822-mph lap again was only 22nd fastest. He'll start in the 11th row.
There is still work to do.
"You just go out there and try to lead," Earnhardt said. "Get to the front. If you aren't in the front, pass the guy in the front of you. You run as hard as you can every lap. It's pretty simple."
Johnson, one of Earnhardt's Chevy teammates at Hendrick, said there is "a lot of prestige involved" with being the point leader, but that you don't even get a T-shirt for prevailing in the regular season. And he sees Junior as a Chase threat regardless of where he finishes in points.
"I think that in the Chase you clearly need to win races," Johnson said. "From what I have seen with [crew chief Steve Letarte] and Junior, and how consistent they've been, and the laps they've led, they're real close to being on a hot streak of victories. So, yes, absolutely he's a threat."
When Earnhardt won at MIS in June it ended a four-year, 139-race winless streak.
"Getting over that hurdle, getting that first win does a lot to relieve you," Junior said. "It reassures you that your team can win. I think if we were still winless we would still feel a bit snake-bitten, or somewhat cursed I guess in a way. That might mess up your psyche a little, mess with you mentally. But once you break through that barrier it definitely gives you reason to believe that you can do it again."
That could be an important mindset with just four races left until the Chase begins.
On one hand, Earnhardt said, "If the wins want to wait and come during the Chase, that's fine with me."
More seriously, he says wins are what have been missing and the sooner the better.
"We need more bonus points so we can lead the points going into [the Chase.] That gives the team a lot of confidence. We feel like we've been so strong this year, we are just a little shy in the win column for how we have performed. We want to win every opportunity we get out on the race track.
"We don't show up to lose. So winning is one of the things I think we'd like to have happen at least once before we get to the Chase."
Earnhardt won't be the only one with that wish list today at MIS, where it has been 17 years since a driver last swept two wins in a season.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.