CONCORD - Finally, the career of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems to be speeding in the right direction.
Although Earnhardt must qualify to get into tonight's all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway - and seems likely to do so since fans get to vote in their favorite - he sits No.4 in the current points standings. That places Earnhardt far above his embarrassing 21st-place finish of 2010 and in a strong early position to make NASCAR's playoffs.
The resurgence has allowed Earnhardt to regain some of his fragile confidence. He now believes he will be able to drive at the Sprint Cup level for many more years, although he admitted to me Friday that he wasn't at all sure of his job security when the 2011 season began.
"I thought it was kind of a make-or-break thing," Earnhardt said of this season. "I want to be able to run for a long time. I felt like my lack of success might deprive me of that - deprive me from the opportunity to be in this sport as long as I want to be."
Earnhardt has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver for eight years in a row, and to think of him without a team or sponsor seems unfathomable. At a time when many drivers struggle to attract even one sponsor, Earnhardt will drive the No.88 Dale Jr. Foundation/VH1 Save the Music/Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet tonight.
He will drive that car first in the Sprint Showdown, which begins at 7:30 p.m. The top two finishers from that race advance to the 9p.m. all-star race, which is a non-points event that pays a million dollars to the winner. A third Sprint Showdown finisher also advances - the winner of the fan vote, presuming that driver finishes on the lead lap.
Due to his enormous fan support, it seems a given that Earnhardt will advance to the main event tonight as long as he doesn't wreck his car in the undercard. But Earnhardt said he isn't sure about that and plans to try to win the race.
"The fan vote thing for me is a tricky subject," Earnhardt said to a group of reporters Friday. "Having been the most popular driver, several people are assuming that is a lock for us.... You just never know what is going to happen."
Last week Earnhardt said if he doesn't make the all-star race he would simply go home and "drink some beer." Since every statement Earnhardt makes is carefully parsed, some people took that one to mean Earnhardt doesn't give a flip about the all-star race.
"I do care about being here," Earnhardt said. "I care about being involved this weekend... I'm unassuming about my role, and accept my fate whatever it might be."
When Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson was asked Friday what he made of Earnhardt's "drink some beer" statement, Johnson quipped: "He likes beer."
More seriously, though, Johnson said he thought Earnhardt was "flying" this season. Johnson believes that the relationship Earnhardt had developed with new crew chief Steve Letarte is one major reason. (Earnhardt is in the fourth year of a five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports that expires at the end of the 2012 season, although there has been talk of an extension).
Earnhardt won NASCAR's all-star race in 2000, and he still considers that night one of the best moments of his life. His famous father owned the team Earnhardt drove for at the time, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. came into Victory Lane to soak up the win with his son. In the photos from that night, both men look radiant.
Earnhardt Sr. died the following year, in the final lap of the Daytona 500. His son has never approached his father's records. Earnhardt Jr. has 18 Sprint Cup wins, but no series championships (his father had seven titles). He hasn't won a Cup race since 2008 and is on a 103-race winless streak. That's why he didn't automatically qualify for tonight's all-star race.
Still, 2011 has been far better. That is good for NASCAR - the sport's chairman Brian France said as much Friday, adding that he thought Earnhardt could contend for this year's championship.
Earnhardt has had five top-10 finishes in the season's first 11 points races. In general, his voice seems less monotone, his mood lighter. He said Friday he's "terribly upset" that Steve Carell has left "The Office" TV show - a longtime Earnhardt favorite - and offered several suggestions for keeping it afloat.
Most significantly, Earnhardt is making more of an effort to get to know his crew. "I'm trying to be more visible, reachable, approachable," Earnhardt said.
Non-confrontational and a bit introverted by nature, Earnhardt Jr. sometimes withdraws into himself when things aren't going well. It was a positive step at Darlington earlier this season when he called a team meeting right after the race to apologize to his team for a mistake he made on pit road.
"There may be some misconceptions that I'm not easy to get along with," Earnhardt told me Friday. "But I am. I go with the flow. I want everyone to be happy. Whatever satisfies the group, that's what I'll usually go with."
At age 36, Earnhardt remains a bachelor. I asked him Friday if he thought he would ever get married.
"Oh, I don't know," Earnhardt said. "I'm not going to say I know I will, because I don't. It's a little bit late in the game for me, but there still might be some hope."
I read over that answer one more time and then realized it could just as well have been his answer to another question:
Will Earnhardt ever win a Cup championship?
It's late in the game, yes. But given the way he's been driving so far this season, there still might be some hope.