The consensus in NASCAR seems to be that this is the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win his first Sprint Cup Series championship.
Just ask NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip.
I have never seen Dale Jr. as focused as he has been this year, he said.
In June, Earnhardts career-worst winless streak came to an end in a dominating win at Michigan International Speedway, putting an exclamation point on what was already a consistently strong season.
But Earnhardt has been close to a title before.
He finished third in the series standings in 2003, before the introduction of the Chase format, but was more than 200 points behind champion Matt Kenseth.
In 2004, the first season of the Chase, Earnhardt had a mathematical chance to win the title at the season finale but wound up fifth in the series standings.
That was as close as NASCARs most popular driver has come to winning a title, something his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., did seven times.
Is this the season?
His cars at Hendrick Motorsports may be better. The Chase system has him within nine points of series leader Denny Hamlin entering Sundays GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
But something else has changed, too, something even Earnhardt can see.
I dont think I realized what opportunity I had at winning the championship until it was too late, he said. Now I think Im better suited mentally to put together 10 good races behind the wheel.
He wasnt mature enough
Some of those closest to Earnhardt back then see the the same thing.
Ty Norris, now executive vice president of business development at Michael Waltrip Racing, was executive vice president of motorsports at DEI from 1996 to 2004. He also served as Earnhardts spotter in the Cup series, and got a first-hand view of Earnhardts 2003 season, which featured two wins, 13 top-fives and 21 top-10s in 36 races.
In some ways we were probably overachieving, Norris said. To be honest, I dont know if Dale Jr. was mature enough then, if he had the mental capacity at the point to be the champion.
He still had those vile moments on the radio screaming with his cousin (Tony Eury Jr.). He would get mad for 10 laps and give up a position on the track.
He just still had those very, very negative, emotional moments.
Norris sees a very different Earnhardt now.
Now, hes matured to the point where he knows he can recover from someone elses mistake, Norris said. So by far, this is his best opportunity to win the championship because hes approaching it differently.
Dale Jr. has always been a phenomenal race car driver. The thing now is he is his own man, hes comfortable in his own skin, comfortable in his own ability, comfortable with his own record.
Some NASCAR fans still say everything Earnhardt has gained in the sport came in part from his father, the NASCAR legend who died in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Hes earned his position now, Norris said of Earnhardt Jr. Twelve years later, Im not sure he thinks anyone has given him anything anymore. Hes earned it.
A no care attitude
Jay Guarneri, like others at Dale Earnhardt Inc., recalls 2003 and 2004 with great reverence.
Guarneri spent six seasons at DEI, from 2003 to 2008, including working as a tire changer and mechanic on Earnhardt Jr.s then-No. 8 Chevrolet in 2003 and 2004.
Back then Dale Jr. was kind of shy, but after one test together we clicked and became friends. Everything was rocking and rolling back then, said Guarneri, who now works with Stewart-Haas Racings No. 39 Chevrolet team.
We finished third in points in 2003 and we came back in 2004 even stronger. We were winning races, we were running good and Dale Jr. was confident.
But Guarneri says that was a different Earnhardt then, much different than the 37-year-old today.
We used to party more back then and we all had a kind of no care attitude, Guarneri said. When Dale Jr. went to Hendrick he became much more of the clean cut, sharp image of a Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon.
Hes definitely matured. I dont know if Dale Jr. didnt appreciate the chances he had at the championship.
I think maybe he just wasnt ready for it.
Working at SHR last season, Guarneri witnessed first-hand the incredible run by team co-owner Tony Stewart, who won five of the final 10 races for his third Cup title.
Tony was a man possessed, Guarneri said. Thats what Dale Jr. needs to do put everything else out for 10 weeks, concentrate on the big prize but also still have fun.
Can he win the championship if it all lines up? With the attitude he has now, absolutely.