Everywhere Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes, his loyal and cheering fans are ever-present, hoping that long elusive Cup championship is almost at hand in this year's Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s previous forays in the Chase for the Sprint Cup have ended with mixed results.
In the first eight editions of the Chase, Junior has made the 10-race playoff just four times, finishing fifth in the inaugural campaign in 2004, fifth in 2006, 12th in 2008 and seventh in 2001.
The other four seasons, he missed the Chase, ultimately finishing 19th (2005), 16th (2007), a career-worst 25th (2009) and 21st (2010).
But 2012 has been a completely different story thus far. Earnhardt not only clinched a spot in the Chase early—two weeks ago at Bristol—but, much like the political campaign for U.S. president that is currently underway, many observers are starting to jump on the Junior bandwagon.
Many of those members of Junior Nation are beginning to predict that their favorite driver will finally live up to all his career expectations and hopes and emerge from the Chase in mid-November as the series champion.
There's no question the road will be rough, as this year's Chase field has the potential to be one of the strongest and toughest we've seen to date.
Some are calling Junior a favorite. Others are calling him just a contender, some are giving him little chance to win it all, while others are saying watch out, he's a potential dark horse to come out on top.
We at Bleacher Report crunched together all the stats, all the different scenarios, the potential opponents in the Chase and came to the conclusion that yes, Dale Jr. is indeed a viable candidate to win the championship this season.
Doing it, of course, will be a whole different story.
Here are the seven reasons we feel Junior could ultimately be this year's Chase favorite. And, of course, we want to hear what YOU think, so please leave a comment once you've read through the following:
Steve Letarte is the No. 1 reason why Earnhardt is where he's at this season.
Almost without question, the No. 1 reason Junior has done so well this season—and that he's in the position and place where he's at right now heading into the Chase—is crew chief Steve Letarte.
Not only has he become a cheerleader for Earnhardt, Letarte has also provided the calming voice and shoulder to lean on when Earnhardt has needed it most.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of their relationship is how, when they're in public settings such as media appearances and the like, one starts a sentence or thought and the other one finishes it. They're that in-tune with each other.
After Earnhardt's previous stints with cousin Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew, Letarte became Earnhardt's crew chief for the 2011 season and the difference was readily apparent from the start.
While there were growing pains last season between the pair, they have come together this season as arguably the most consistent and successful driver-crew chief combination of 2012.
There'd be no better way to cap things off than with a championship at season's end.
Rick Hendrick is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 1 fan.
Rick Hendrick has never wavered in his support, belief and faith in Dale Earnhardt Jr. since the latter joined the Hendrick Motorsports family in 2008.
Hendrick has long felt that Earnhardt would finally become the driver—and champion—he was meant to be, and has displayed both patience and resolve that Junior's day as NASCAR's top driver would come eventually.
In addition, Hendrick has surrounded Earnhardt with the best equipment, the best personnel and helped Junior develop the mentality and confidence not only of a winner, but a champion in waiting.
Once Hendrick takes a driver under his wing, he's rarely wrong about his long-term success potential (perfect examples: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson).
If Junior wins the championship this season, the trophy should be cut in thirds—one part to Earnhardt, the second part to Letarte and the third to Hendrick. If Junior wins the title, it will definitely be a collaborative and team effort.
Could Junior's next trophy be the Sprint Cup?
NASCAR is a sport of opportunity, timing and fortune—both good and bad.
This has unquestionably been Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s best Cup season to date. That's why it's so crucial he gives everything he has to win the title this season, lest this potentially could also be his best—and last—chance to ever get this far again.
Granted, with Letarte atop the pit box, that's not likely, as the duo should potentially be championship contenders for at least the next five years. But timing in NASCAR is fickle: Just when it looks like you may win your first championship, something happens and you fail to do so (just ask guys like Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle).
This may be the year of the dragon on the Chinese calendar, but this has all the markings of potentially being Junior's year on the NASCAR calendar. What he ultimately does with it will be decided in a little over 10 weeks from now.
Talladega could be the race and track to make or break Junior's championship hopes.
Earnhardt has not only had a great season to date, he's coming into the so-called playoffs with a great track record, no pun intended, at the 10 tracks that make up the Chase.
In fact, of Junior's 19 career Sprint Cup wins, 10 have come at upcoming Chase tracks: Talladega (5), Phoenix (2), and one win each at Chase kickoff host Chicago, Dover and Texas.
Of course, he has yet to win at the other five: New Hampshire, Kansas, Martinsville, Charlotte and Homestead.
The most important thing is for him not to get nervous in the first three Chase events. Those will definitely set the tone for the remainder of the Chase, not only for Earnhardt, but the rest of the 12-driver field.
If he has a bad race, Earnhardt has to simply forget about it and move on. That's where having Letarte could ultimately become the difference between backsliding and going forward from that point on.
In our eyes, without question, the biggest race in the Chase for Earnhardt will be Talladega. Although he's struggled there in the last several races, he's due for a change in fortune from bad to good.
Junior used to own the 2.66-mile superspeedway and had outstanding success there. There's no reason why he can't come back to own it again. If he can get through the biggest wild-card race of the Chase successfully—a win would be an added bonus—there may be no stopping the Earnhardt Express from that point on.
His loyal fan base has waited far too long for a Cup championship from the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. He has all the tools to do it, now it's just a matter of taming each of the 10 tracks and taking what has eluded him for so long.
Earnhardt needs a few more wins to earn the championship.
Winning a championship with just one win—his victory at Michigan in June—is just not going to cut it if Earnhardt wants to be a champion this season. It's almost mandatory that he must win at least two races in the Chase to even have a chance at the championship.
Of course, if he goes on one of the greatest winning streaks of his career and gets more than two triumphs, all the better.
Of the 10 Chase tracks, four give him the best chance at taking the checkered flag: Talladega (obviously, given his past record there), the flat tracks at New Hampshire and Phoenix and the site of his first career Cup win back in 2000, Texas Motor Speedway.
There's nothing wrong with the overall consistency Earnhardt has shown in 2012; it's gotten him into the Chase and kept him in the top 10 for almost the entire season to date. But consistency will only take him so far. He needs wins to go with it to make a run at the title.
Otherwise, he'll ultimately fall short—and leave it to non-Earnhardt fans to quickly pounce and say, "See, I told you he'll never be a champion."
Can he win five races in the Chase like Tony Stewart did last season? Probably not. Can he win two, maybe three (we'll even go so far as to say four) races in the Chase much like Jimmie Johnson did in virtually each year that he won his five consecutive Chase Championships? It's definitely attainable, for sure.
After what we've seen from both Johnson and Stewart in the past seven seasons, we're not ruling anything out for Junior.
There appear to be very few clouds on the horizon anymore for Junior.
The Dale Earnhardt Jr. of 2012 is markedly different than any other edition we've seen over the last 12 Cup seasons.
He's much more mature, with greater confidence, more patience and ultimately has given up much of what he previously took upon himself as team leader. He has handed those reins over to Letarte—as it should have been in the first place, particularly since Earnhardt came to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
For far too long, Earnhardt was a man with a team who acted like a man who could do it all without his team. Now, he's finally learned what a true team is—and what being a true teammate is, as well. What has resulted is a significantly more mature and grown-up driver who not only dreams about that elusive championship, he's finally put together everything to go out and earn it.
While the naysayers are still likely to say Earnhardt will fold up during the Chase, Junior and the rest of his Nation would take no greater pleasure than to prove the critics wrong. One other thing in Earnhardt's favor this season has been his outstanding consistency. He's run a very methodical and balanced campaign, and that's the reason he is where he is right now.
No other driver has shown the type of consistency Earnhardt has in 2012, and ultimately, that could wind up being the difference between winning the championship and, say, finishing seventh.
Some may consider him a dark horse going into the Chase, but trust us, Earnhardt is a true thoroughbred in 2012. He's ready to run for the roses.
Brian France: NASCAR needs Junior to win races and championships.
There's no question how much Earnhardt's fans, Hendrick, Letarte and others in the HMS camp—and Earnhardt himself—want to see him win it all this season. But there's one other extremely interested party that, while on the surface has to remain neutral, but deep down inside is keeping its fingers and toes crossed that Junior wins it all in 2012.
That, of course, is the sanctioning body, NASCAR.
An Earnhardt championship would likely ignite a significantly renewed interest in the sport from both casual fans and fans who have left it in recent years, particularly long-suffering Junior fans. It could also be a giant leap towards returning to the glory and high-living days prior to the economic downturn that began in 2007 and has continued ever since (although there have been signs of promise with increased TV ratings and increased at-track attendance at many facilities).
If Earnhardt wins, it would likely also help the sponsorship issues that the sport continues to have, and potentially attract new sponsors who want to get into what could once again become the hottest game in town.
As NASCAR chairman Brian France has said repeatedly, the sport needs for Junior to win races and championships.
There's no better indicator that as Junior goes, so goes NASCAR.