|Earnhardt has sharpened his focus|
Earnhardt led 47 laps Sunday en route to a fifth-place finish, and was a leading contender for Victory Lane until inadvertently being blocked into his pit stall by the Ford of Casey Mears on the afternoon’s final pit stop.
"I hate to be frustrated at Phoenix, but I think we are," said Earnhardt afterward. "We had a real good car (and) we feel like we could have finished better than fifth, maybe even won the race. We just didn't get the breaks on pit road. I think we could have beat (Edwards) off pit road, but somebody was pulling into their stall in front of us, and I had to lift and give the spot to the No. 99.
“That was the race, in my opinion.”
The finish was Earnhardt’s second Top-5 showing in as many starts this season. He trailed winner Jimmie Johnson to the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, and that fast start has him second in championship points, just eight behind Johnson. While it’s too soon to begin watching the championship scoreboard, this is clearly not the same Earnhardt that finished the 2010 season a lowly 21st in points.
That season, NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver managed only three Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes in his third campaign with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, triggering a firestorm of speculation about his future with NASCAR’s most dominant team.
Today, there is no question about Earnhardt’s place in the HMS lineup. He snapped a four year, 143-race winless streak with a popular victory at Michigan International Speedway last June, and led the championship standings at midseason before being forced from the title chase by a crash at Talladega Superspeedway that left him with a severe concussion.
In crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has found the friend, cheerleader and mentor he has lacked since Tony Eury, Sr., climbed down from the pit box at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. prior to the 2005 season.
|Junior and Letarte have meshed|
On Letarte’s watch, Earnhardt has brought a more professional approach to his job as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver. The 38-year old spends less time with his Playstation and more time debriefing with his crew, immersing himself in the factual minutia he openly disdained just a few seasons ago. He has supplemented his longtime diet of pizza and chicken wings with an increased emphasis on fish, chicken and vegetables, and now tips the scales at a svelte 175 pounds; down from 190 less than a year ago.
“I lost a lot of weight -- about 15 or 20 pounds -- trying to do a better job of managing my calories,” he said. “I never really worried about it before. I’d eat all kinds of stuff like pizza and wings every day and not really watch portion control.
“For me, (it’s about) trying to maintain my weight so I don’t have to keep getting my driver suits altered throughout the season,” he laughed. “Last year I was like, ‘Man, they’re shrinking, something is wrong with the washer.’ I'm no health freak, but I think the older you get, the more you have to do to maintain a healthy weight.”
By all accounts, Earnhardt is a stronger, fitter and more emotionally invested driver than he was just three years ago. Letarte and team owner Rick Hendrick have helped in that transformation, as have the driver’s own age and maturity.
Regardless of who gets the credit, however, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., finally appears ready to contend for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, fulfilling the expectations his fans have clung to so patiently, for so long.
Photos: Getty Images, AP Photo/Autostock/Russell LaBounty