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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now officially a NASCAR championship contender

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He’s been there before. Five times in fact. Five times NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has been part of the season ending playoffs to decide a champion otherwise known as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

The best he’s ever finished in the season point standings during the Chase years is fifth, three times.

The last time he finished fifth came in 2013. However, that season he went winless.

This year is different.

Earnhardt won his second race of the season Sunday at Pocono Raceway. It was the first time he’s ever won on the 2.5 mile triangular speedway. More importantly it marks the first time since 2004 that he’s won more than one race in a season. The win also locks him into this year’s Chase. His first win came at the season opening Daytona 500; his second Daytona 500 win, the first coming in, 2004.

In the years since 2004 Earnhardt has admittedly struggled. He has wins, but only one a season and only four total. This year seems different however.

The bigger story, even bigger than the two wins perhaps, is the competitiveness Earnhardt and his Hendrick Motorsports crew led by crew chief Steve Letarte have shown. Through 14 races they have amassed six top five and two top ten finishes. It’s the type of competitiveness NASCAR usually only sees in Earnhardt’s teammate and six time champion Jimmie Johnson, whose crew is led by Chad Knaus.

It’s a competitiveness Earnhardt says have been elusive in the last few years.

“ For any team it's hard to get that competitive to where you can win races,” Earnhardt said Sunday after his win. “We see teams really kind of -- we see teams that get that strong and they'll maintain that like Jimmie and Chad when they get together and they sort of -- Chad is really good at putting the right people in the right places to keep that team competitive and give Jimmie a lot of chances to win races. “

“Our group has been working together for quite some years now,” he added. “Each year we saw a progression in performance and we've seen ourselves get better each year. So this makes sense to me, what I'm seeing us do and how I see us run makes a lot of sense to me, and it was the logical next result in my opinion for this team as we've gotten better and better throughout each year.”

Earnhardt laughed when asked if his team was the new 48, Johnson’s car number.

“Easy now,” he said grinning. “They just come off of two straight wins, and everybody was about to crown him the champion. You know, two weeks before they were wondering what the hell was wrong with him, and then two weeks later he's the best thing on the block. We just got to keep everything in perspective. Jimmie is an awesome teammate. We're successful because of their success and vice versa. I think we really work well together.”

“They're the 48 and we're the 88, and I don't want to be the new 48,” Earnhardt added. “I want to be the new 88. We'll definitely try to continue to work hard and try to win some more races and try to leave our own mark and not a mark similar to anyone else.”

One thing that has changed for this year’s Chase is the premium on wins. Only four drivers, including Earnhardt after Sunday, have two wins. With multiple wins Earnhardt knows he will be in this year’s Chase and that relives a great deal of pressure on him and his team.

“Oh, yeah, we started out the season when we won at Daytona, man, it made the rest of the year a lot more relaxing, a lot easier, less stress,” Earnhardt said. “It makes it fun, because you can just go to the race track and just race and not worry about points.”

Thanks to that Daytona win in February Earnhardt said his and the entire teams attitude, and schedule have changed.

“We went to -- we used to -- last year and every damned year we would test at those road courses,” he said.”Road Atlanta and here and there and work ourselves to death trying to figure out how to go faster at a road course, knowing damned good and well I wasn't going to run well because I don't know how to drive them.”

“But I can run okay at the Glen every once in a while, but Sonoma, it's embarrassing, man, I haven't finished in the top 11 there ever,” he added. “We just decided not to work that hard and just go there without a test and wing it, and we got teammates to test it and we'll see what they did and liked and we can go there with an attitude of it's not -- we don't have to dig and gouge for every single position and we don't have to worry if it's a total disaster or if it doesn't work out, if we get spun out on the last lap. We can just go have fun. “

Beyond the wins, there is another motivation for Earnhardt this season. His crew chief, and friend , Steve Letarte has already announced that this season will be his last as he leaves the team to become a TV analyst.

“It’s a really emotional thing,” Earnhardt said. “You know, he's just -- primarily, man, I'm real happy for him to be able to do this thing. You know, racing is an important thing, an important part of our lives, but it's not the most important thing, and he's going to be able to go do this job. He's going to be financially set, he's going to be able to spend a ton of time with his kids, play as much golf as he wants to play. He's getting a steal compared to what he's doing right now. So I'm happy for him in that sense.”

“As good a friends as we are, I feel lucky to have one more year.,” he said. “Hey, man, he told me at this particular point, I was one of the first people to know, that meant a lot to me, and he's letting me understand that we've got one more year together,’ let's have some fun, and then I'm going to do this thing. I'm going to do it, and be happy for me’. So I am. I'm thrilled for him, and I'm glad we're winning.

“It would be very disappointing and sad if this was his last year and we struggled,” Earnhardt added. “But we've won two races, and I won my first Pocono race, he won his first Daytona 500. It seems a bit storybook, and we're having a real thrill.”

With the way he and the team have been running, that storybook could have a happy ending. With the pressure eased, the team having fun, and winning races, Earnhardt may be in line for his best year so far. No one can say at this point that he will win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, but for the first time in many years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be called a definite contender.

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