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Up is down! Black is white! Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be leading the NASCAR points race in August!
We're here, folks. We're here at the point where no sane NASCAR fan (a contradiction in terms, we grant you) can in any way deny that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a legitimate championship contender in 2012.
This is no small statistical matter. Earnhardt is in most ways the face of NASCAR: its most popular driver, its most recognizable name, its most marketable commodity. But in the one way that really counts — wins — he ranks far behind his peers. And for most of the last half-dozen years, you couldn't even say "championship contender Dale Earnhardt Jr." without dissolving into fits of laughter.
Everything's different now. At the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis on Sunday, some steady driving, yet another top-five finish, and a fortuitous-for-Junior late-race wreck involving then-leader Matt Kenseth put Earnhardt right at the top of the standings. This marks the latest in the season he's been this high since 2004, back when everyone assumed the 2000s would belong to Junior, back when everyone still thought "the Cowboys coach?" when they heard "Jimmie Johnson." (Technically, he held the lead in October 2004, but lost it after a points deduction for cursing in victory lane, so NASCAR "officially" has his latest lead as September 2004 after New Hampshire.)
The 2000s came and went, and so too did chance after chance for Earnhardt to establish dominance — hell, even a fingerhold — atop the NASCAR heap. Shortly after he joined the Hendrick Dream Team, Earnhardt began The Streak; one of the uglier runs in professional sports; a four-year, 143-race losing run whose effects even today keep a significant majority of NASCAR fans from taking the possibility of an Earnhardt championship seriously.
It's time to start doing exactly that. With his fourth-place finish on Sunday, Earnhardt tied Jeff Gordon's record of consecutive lead-lap finishes with 21. He's got a win on the season, but then so does Joey Logano. What distinguishes Earnhardt this year is the way he's staying near the front, race after race. He's got 15 top-10 finishes in 20 races, a total matched only by Jimmie Johnson. And only Johnson's 10 top fives exceed Earnhardt's nine.
Earnhardt's detractors are having to dig deeper to find reasons to cut on the 88 team. Sure, you could say that he's always fallen short before, and thus he will again. But you could have said that about any driver who's never won a championship. You could also say that simply running close to the front is no guarantee of success; Carl Edwards proved that last year. But you could also note that a driver has to be close to have a chance, and Earnhardt is keeping himself close, week after week.
Will Earnhardt win the 2012 Sprint Cup? As Edwards, Kevin Harvick and others could attest, a regular-season points lead is worth a handful of greasy lug nuts come Chase time. And there doesn't appear to be any driver capable of challenging Jimmie Johnson on a week-to-week basis.
Still, Earnhardt is here, in command as the summer wanes, and that's something that only the most delusional denizens of Junior Nation would have predicted back in February. Enjoy the ride, Junior fans, for as long as it lasts ... and it might last right on through the season finale in Homestead, Fla.
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