Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Can He Stand Strong Against Challenge from Teammate?

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IAugust 2, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 28:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 28, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The next NASCAR Sprint Cup champion may well be a product of the same garage at Hendrick Motorsports, but points leader, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will be challenged by the onslaught of his teammate.

Earnhardt garnered his first win at Michigan after a four year drought. His consistency has kept him in the top five of the standings much of the season and now he is in the top slot, 14 points to the good.

Next on the agenda for the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte, is the prize at the end of the Chase—the Cup title.

Junior is now frustrated with top-five finishes, though he appreciates the hard work of his team. He knows he needs to win races and anything less is inadequate at this point.

"Give me a reason why not," was Letarte's response to the media at Indianapolis in regards to whether or not they could win a championship.

The statistics for Earnhardt this season have been impressive with nine top fives, matching his previous best in 2004. He has 15 top 10s with an average finish of 8.1, having completed every lap of every race.

Earnhardt stated following a fourth place finish at Indianapolis, "We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase."

Teammate Jimmie Johnson is in championship-winning form with three wins this season; he is fourth in the standings, 27 markers behind Earnhardt.

The sharing of information between Letarte and Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, is obviously paying dividends in the 48/88 shop.

"There's a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it's ever been," said Johnson in his Indianapolis winner's press conference.

Johnson added, "I'm happy to see Steve (Letarte) as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them and it's a two-way street."

It is going to be ambitious for Johnson to make up the 27 points to take the lead in the standings if Earnhardt continues with top-10 finishes.

The only really challenging track for the driver of the No. 88 in the next six races leading to the Chase is Watkins Glen. Road course racing can be problematic, but he may pull a top 10 with some luck.

At this point, Johnson will be top seed in the Chase because of his three wins. There is a sense that the No. 48 Lowe's team is back in title-contending form and they want that sixth championship.

To win a title, Earnhardt will need to maintain consistency and win races just as he said. Earlier this year he was going for the win at Pocono, but fuel strategy bit them and he finished eighth.

Hendrick Motorsports has two hot horses with Earnhardt and Johnson when it comes to winning the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

It may have taken 14 years or so for Earnhardt to really get what it takes to be a winner and a champion, but it looks like he is really getting the hang of it.

His confidence level is as high as it has ever been. He is truly an interactive part of the team as opposed to the driver who used to just show up to race the car. Letarte can take credit for the change.

There are other players that might go on a winning streak during the next six races and perhaps through the Chase, but they just may be trying to catch an HMS team.

Johnson is going to be tough in the Chase this year, but don't discount Earnhardt for being up to the challenge.

This may be the year that nothing can stop the 88 team and the championship will be theirs.

Quotes obtained for this article were from official press releases.