CHICAGO – The evolution of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career has been one of highs and lows—arguably with more lows than highs, especially over the last few years.
But 2012 has not only been a significantly different season for Junior; it's given us a significantly different Junior himself. He's more patient, more willing to let things slide when bad luck or misfortune occurs, and most importantly, he's become a much more mature driver.
In short, what we've seen has been the transition of Earnhardt into the type of driver his legions of fans have long sought and hoped for.
Few drivers have gone through the ups and downs that Earnhardt has during their Cup career, not to mention the significant magnification and scrutiny of almost everything he does simply because of his surname and the legacy left by his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Earnhardt finished third in 2003 and fifth in 2004, the first year of the Chase. That gave his excited fans great hope that a championship would be right around the corner.
However, reality has a funny way of getting in the way of hopes and dreams:
* He's missed four of the first eight editions of the Chase.
* In 2009 and 2010, he suffered through the worst seasons of his career, finishing 25th and 21st, respectively. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of optimism that Junior would ever recover.
Will 2012 finally be the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Sprint Cup championship?
But when team owner Rick Hendrick shifted crew chief Steve Letarte from Jeff Gordon's team to take the helm of Earnhardt's team at the beginning of last season, the change was almost immediate.
Earnhardt bounced back to not only make the Chase, but to finish a respectable seventh.
"We hadn't done much during the season to put ourselves in the conversation last year," Earnhardt said during a Chase press conference Wednesday in downtown Chicago. "We were just a kind of steady team that just didn't put enough points together. But this year, we ran well enough that we were second in points going into Richmond, and that's no fluke."
Indeed, 2012 has not been a fluke. We not only have seen Earnhardt racing perhaps the best he ever has—certainly better than he has since those glory years of 2003 and 2004—we're also potentially on the verge of watching history being made: that of Earnhardt earning his first career Sprint Cup championship.
"We've been pretty strong throughout the whole season," Earnhardt said. "I feel like we've gotten better and better as the season went. … You just have to wait till the Chase starts. I have to wait to get in the car and see what we brought to the table."
While his loyal fans have long predicted a Cup title in Junior's future, no one could have expected it to take this long. And, for that matter, it still may not happen.
But with the way Earnhardt has performed this season—he's been the most consistent driver on the series since the season-opening Daytona 500—the potential payoff that so many people have waited so long for is at hand.
Even Junior admitted Wednesday that maybe he just hasn't been ready to be a champion—until now, that is.
"I think back how we won those Nationwide Series championships (in 1998 and 1999)," Earnhardt reflected back. "I didn't know how to win a championship, I didn't know how to race for a championship.
"We just went out and ran as hard as we could and got a big enough lead to lock it up early. So, I thought at that time that I knew how to win championships, but I really didn't. It's taken a lot of mistakes to get smarter. I feel that if I do what I need to do on the race track myself and not mistakes, then I put myself in a good position to win this one."
The ninth edition of the Chase—and Junior's potential run to the championship—both begin this Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway.
It has the makings of the best Chase ever. That's not just idle talk—that's Earnhardt's belief not only in himself, but the caliber of the 12-driver field.
"I think this is the most competitive Chase we've had," Earnhardt said. "There's no clear favorite. There's no one guy that stands out above the rest, and if you had to pick or guess odds, everybody's odds are pretty even."
Still, Earnhardt is looking to get off to a fast and good start.
"The first one is the best opportunity to win," Earnhardt said of Chicagoland. "I think we can be strong everywhere."
Earnhardt's performance in the first 26 races speaks for itself. He's never been outside the top 5 in the standings, including leading the points for two weeks.
And even though he starts the Chase tied for seventh due to reseeding after last Saturday's final qualifying race at Richmond, just nine points behind No. 1 seed Denny Hamlin, Earnhardt is still well within the range for striking fast and furious once the green flag falls Sunday.
Some observers say they have never seen Junior more confident than he is now, something that he seems to agree with.
"I'm pretty confident," he admitted. "We've worked on our confidence and built our confidence up, so we have good reason to be confident. So, the confidence level is in good shape. I've been enjoying what we've done, so I've been happy and enjoying the season and hopefully when this is over and we get to (the season finale – and potential championship celebration at) Homestead, I'll be happy."
NASCAR and millions of Earnhardt's fans will be just as happy, if not more so. If he indeed wins the championship, it could have a transforming effect upon the series and sport that would be similar to the way his late father impacted the sport, particularly with his record-tying seven championships.
"I feel we've got a good shot at it," Earnhardt said. "We've been consistent all year long and I think our chances are as good as they have ever been for me. I had a pretty good shot at it back in '04 (he finished fifth), but I think this year is a better opportunity.
"We've got the team, and we're poised to make a run at it. You've got to put the guys that have won the championship at the top of the list as the favorites but we are in the conversation, and we're going to work hard to still be in that conversation (when it comes time for the season finale) at Homestead (Fla.)."
Perhaps more than anything that shows how he has matured and evolved into a bona fide championship contender, Earnhardt readily admits what a championship would mean to his life and legacy.
"I don't know that it'd change my life at all, really," he said. "But it would just cap off a career that's had good success and is just missing that one piece of the puzzle."
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.