By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports XChange
JOLIET, Ill. -- In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a career-best six races with family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and entered the final race of the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in fourth place -- with an outside shot at the title.
Even though Earnhardt has but one race in the win column so far this season, he believes he has a better shot at the championship this season than he did eight years ago.
"I think this is the best chance I've ever had," Earnhardt said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday's Geico 400. "I think even more than 2004. Looking back on that year, I didn't realize how close we could have come or how good that chance was. We really were a strong team--maybe weren't the strongest team -- (but) one of the two strongest teams for sure in the series that year.
"I think we're a more complete team now, where we run good at all the race tracks, the majority of the race tracks with this group we've got today. I feel like there is no dominant figure in the group (of Chase drivers) that stands out. That really builds our confidence that it's there for the taking if we can put it together consistent weeks -- week-in and week-out, win a couple of races -- that we could be the champion. No question about it."
Earlier this week, Earnhardt denied a tabloid report he would wed girlfriend Amy Reimann at the end of the season. And he scoffed at the notion that a more stable personal life might have contributed to more solid performances on the track.
"I ran pretty good in 2004 -- and I was anything but stable off the race track," Earnhardt said with a smile.
Earnhardt was second fastest in Friday's first Cup practice session and will be the 46th of 47 cars to make a qualifying attempt in Saturday afternoon's time trials.
RETURN OF THE GEEK SQUAD
Best Buy will return as the anchor sponsor of the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing next season, but with a different driver behind the wheel, the organization announced Friday at Chicagoland Speedway.
The electronics and appliance retailer will sponsor the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion in 12 Cup races, as Stenhouse competes in his first full season in NASCAR's foremost series. Best Buy also will sponsor the No. 99 Ford of Carl Edwards in four Cup races.
Fifth Third Bank and Zest also will return as primary sponsors for the No. 17 car, which has approximately 70 percent of its inventory filled for 2013. Veteran Jimmy Fennig is expected to remain with the 17 car as Stenhouse's crew chief, though team owner Jack Roush reserves the right to change personnel.
"Ricky is a very lucky young driver, because he is able now to step into a mature team," Roush said Friday at Chicagoland. "Regardless of how the personnel winds up being distributed next year, he winds up taking one of the three seats at our table -- which have been very good seats based on the work that (general manager) Robbie Reiser has done on the manufacturing side, and all the crew chiefs at the race track.
"Unlike a lot of rookies that have to wait their time to either grow a team that can give them what they need, or to find a senior driver that backs away (and) leaves a spot open, he is very lucky to have that. Roush Fenway and Best Buy and Zest and Fifth Third are very lucky to have Ricky -- Ricky is going to make a statement in this business."
Stenhouse is fighting for his second straight Nationwide title in Roush Fenway's No. 6 Ford. He trails series leader Elliott Sadler by one point with eight races left.
PEAK PERFORMANCE FOR BOWYER
Michael Waltrip Racing followed Roush's announcement with more positive sponsorship news. Peak Motor Oil has signed on with Clint Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota as primary sponsor for three races in each of the next three Cup seasons.
In addition, Peak will fill an associate sponsorship role on all three MWR cars for the entire seasons. The deal with MWR won't affect Peak's personal services contract with Danica Patrick, who represents the brand in a variety of advertising media.
"We have a number of people we're very proud to be associated with across a number of sports," said Bryan Emrich, vice president of marketing for Old World Industries, parent company of the Peak brands. "So Danica's certainly still a big part of our organization.
"But we're excited to have Clint and all of Michael Waltrip be on board with us."
CHASE CONTENDER FENDER-BENDER
It happens every day on the highway but seldom in the Cup garage.
As Chase driver Brad Keselowski was exiting the garage area, a NASCAR official motioned for him to stop. Keselowski didn't see the official right away and hit his brakes at the last second. Martin Truex Jr., who was following, couldn't stop in time and rear-ended Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge.
"Look at the back of my car, Joey," Keselowski radioed to spotter Joey Meier. "How bad is it?"
"It's (expletive) destroyed," Meier replied. "Bring it back in."
But the damage was more cosmetic than structural, and after repairs, the No. 2 team had Keselowski back on the track 15 minutes later.
Similarly, Truex's team worked on the nose of his No. 56 Toyota and got the car back into racing shape. Truex had paced the opening practice session with a lap at 181.763 mph, more than a mile-an-hour faster than Earnhardt's top speed.