Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season has reached a crossroads. He's third in the standings and is running as good as he has in years. But – and this is a big but – the next six races will determine if he's truly back or if the first two months of the season were nothing more than a tease.
Saturday night's Crown Royal 400 begins a stretch of six races at six tracks where, lately, Earnhardt has not been very good. Between Richmond, Darlington, Dover, Charlotte, Kansas and Pocono, Junior has not had a single top 10 since 2008 – a span of 20 races.
If that trend holds, come mid-June, Junior's fast start will be nothing more than a memory.
"I've run good a lot of race tracks in my career, but if you pick out the three or four that maybe were my best, I've struggled at all three or four of them in the last couple of years," Earnhardt said Friday. "It's not a good reflection, I guess, of how well I can do at this place. … The changes that we've made seem to be working everywhere else, and I hope that they work this weekend."
What optimism Junior has stems from crew chief Steve Letarte. For Earnhardt, going to the track every weekend with his new crew chief has been like opening up a present and seeing what's inside. In this case, it's getting inside the cockpit, rolling onto the track and finding out how Letarte's setup is going to suit him.
So far, Junior's been pleasantly surprised every week, including Friday when he rolled out onto the track at Richmond and promptly clocked the fastest lap in the first Cup practice.
"I think a big factor in their consistency and in the confidence that I see in Dale Jr. today is the chemistry between he and Steve," Jimmie Johnson said. "This sport is about people. We always say it. We preach about in the No. 48 car and why it's had the success that it's had. It really boils down to people and the relationships those people have. What they have is working."
Again, so far.
When Junior arrived at Hendrick Motorsports back in 2008, he got off to the kind of start that had people thinking championship – the kind of start he's had this season. He won the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel, then rattled off 12 top 10s, including a win, in his first 15 races with the organization. After winning at Michigan, he sat third in the standings, 170 points better than Johnson, then the two-time defending champion.
As it turned out, that was the highwater mark for Junior at Hendrick Motorsports. He'd collect just four more top 10s the rest of the season, finish last in the Chase and hasn't been back to victory lane since.
There have been flashes of brilliance – his final-lap dash that nearly won him last year's Daytona 500 foremost among them. But to this point, they've been only that – flashes. Nothing sustaining, little consistency.
This is why Junior refuses to celebrate his latest good start.
"When we accomplish certain goals, you know, like win a race or win a couple of races or make the Chase or win a race in the Chase or battle for the championship, those kinds of things I can get excited about and get happy with," Junior explained. "I'll enjoy those moments. But we still have another step to go.
"Every time we go to the race track every weekend, it's me and Steve going to the track for the first time together," he continued. "There is a lot of anticipation to get in the car for that first practice; tons of anticipation. So I look forward to seeing how the day turns out."
How it does turn out will be a good indication of which path Junior is about to embark upon. Run up front, collect another top 10 and there will be a growing sense of optimism. Struggle and the doubt that's eroded his confidence will inch its way back inside Junior's head.
"I'm the only one under the pressure to keep it up," Junior said. "I hope I can come into the next race and keep up the consistency and do it again and do it again."
Saturday night we'll find out if he can.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Race fan drives around track for 100th birthday
• Golfer breaks toe with club, withdraws from tournament
• David Beckham's royal wedding faux pas