Remember, you heard it here first, folks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. might just win the 2014 Daytona 500. He might even not only make the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he might actually, finally contend for the championship -- and by that, we're talking being part of the title conversation all the way down to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Is this the wild-eyed fantasy jabbering of one of Junior's most loyal fans?
No, this isn't another misguided, overly-optimistic, sentimental vote for NASCAR's most popular driver. This isn't Junior Nation rising as one to proclaim that racing's prodigal son is finally ready to return to Victory Lane with the kind of regularity that would at last have his critics relax on the unfavorable comparisons to his late and rather incomparable father.
This is fact, clothed in objective opinion. This is an admission of hope for bigger Junior accomplishments in the future, when it appeared to realists that there was no reason for any such optimism.
Check the record and you will find that some Junior skeptics are hard to win over. It's never been a question of Junior's likeability off the track or even his accountability for what transpires on it. He gets positive checkmarks in both of those boxes.
It's been about his shortcomings as a driver, that he's been good but usually not great over his 15 seasons as a Cup driver -- especially over the last seven seasons. There is even legitimate reason to wonder if he'd still have his current Hendrick Motorsports ride if his last name was Earnhardt.
Being one of the skeptics, Earnhardt's Talladega run piled on top of some other recent evidence has done it. Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team backed by Hendrick power and the never-ending optimism of Smiling Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's capable crew chief, have won at least some of us holdouts over.
Here's why: Earnhardt did everything right in the closing laps of the Camping World 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. He was stalking race leader Jamie McMurray on the final lap and poised to pounce.
Let's be honest. You never really want to be leading at the beginning of the final lap of a restrictor-plate race at Talladega or Daytona International Speedway. You want to be in second, ready to pounce and slingshot past with the help of a friend pushing from behind.
And there Junior was, in perfect position. He was patient, too, knowing that to make a move for the lead too soon only would have made him the proverbial sitting duck coming to the checkered flag, instead of McMurray. Earnhardt even came over the team radio and hinted that he had something special planned to pass McMurray for the win, most likely off the fourth and final turn.
But before Earnhardt's last-lap gambit could unfold, the guy who was supposed to do the pushing of the No. 88, Cup newcomer Austin Dillon, lost control of his No. 14 Chevy and went sailing airborne in a spectacular crash. That brought out the caution and froze the field as it was, making McMurray the winner.
Earnhardt had to settle for second for the second time in four Chase for the Sprint Cup races. He also finished second at Dover, when some of his own driving mistakes in and around pit road appeared to doom his chances of winning after he had led 80 laps.
Earnhardt likewise finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500 way back in February, but this second-place finish in the restrictor-plate race at Talladega was different. In the Daytona 500, he did not lead a single lap and never really seemed like a true contender to win. In the Camping World 500, Earnhardt led 38 laps and put himself in the perfect position to win.
Fate had other ideas. The Dillon wreck appeared to occur because Dillon tried to block Ricky Stenhouse Jr. from getting a run on him from behind. Whatever happened, it had nothing and yet everything to do with Earnhardt -- as in he had no hand in it, but his latest near-miss was sealed by it.
Earnhardt won't win this year's title. Currently sixth in the standings, he's too far behind (52 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson) with only four races left.
He probably won't win one of the last four races, either. But suddenly, it wouldn't be as much of a surprise if he did rise up and win one -- and then it will be a matter of carrying that general momentum, as well as the specific restrictor-plate momentum borne of the latest Talladega finish -- into next season's Daytona 500.
Most times in recent years when Earnhardt has had chances to win, he has somehow screwed them up. This time, he did everything right. He's showing the kind of consistent speed, leading all those laps at Dover and again at Talladega, that allow him to run up front consistently and contend. That has to come first before the actual wins and true contention for a championship can follow.
Junior probably doesn't want this season to end, except that it will signal a fresh start in the points race. He definitely doesn't want NASCAR to tinker too much more with the Generation-6 race car, which they have more than hinted at doing in recent tests, because he and Letarte seem to be gaining a real handle on it as is.
The entire No. 88 operation obviously has benefited from the close collaboration that comes with building race cars in a combined Hendrick shop with the No. 48 team of Johnson and his wily crew chief, Chad Knaus. That should only reap more rewards in the near future.
It's still a fact that Earnhardt has won only two races in the last seven Cup seasons. It's still a fact that he hasn't won a Cup race at any other track besides Michigan since winning at Richmond on May 6, 2006 -- a span of 272 races.
But we're here to tell you: look out come the 2014 Daytona 500 next February. This Earnhardt Relevancy Alert is for real.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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