What Win at Pocono Means for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Impressive 2014 Season

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What Win at Pocono Means for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Impressive 2014 Season
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Few things surprise me in NASCAR anymore. But I have to admit, my jaw dropped slightly when I looked it up:

The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won two races in the same season was in 2004.

Since winning the Daytona 500 to start the 2004 season and then capturing another victory at Atlanta three races later, Earnhardt went more than 10 full years before he earned his second win in the same season Sunday at Pocono.

Here's another jaw-dropping fact: Junior has won as many races this year as he did from 2007 through last season combined.

Let's add a bit of emphasis to that: C-O-M-B-I-N-E-D.

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In other words, he won two races out of 250 starts across those seven years (276 if you count the remaining 26 races after winning his only race in 2006, the spring race at Richmond).

I'm sure many people wondered how many years—not races—it would take for Earnhardt to win another race after he started off this season with his Daytona 500 triumph.

After all, Earnhardt won one race in 2006 and then didn't win again until 2008. Then, after that one, he didn't win another race again until 2012, the latter two race wins both coming in the June race at Michigan International Speedway, which interestingly enough plays host to the Sprint Cup Series' next race this coming Sunday.

After his back-to-back triumphs at Charlotte and Dover, so many people wondered if Jimmie Johnson would win a third straight race Sunday.

Now, I'm betting the talk throughout the upcoming week among NASCAR fans—not to mention the entire NASCAR garage—will be whether Junior can win two in a row at the same track where he had won his last two races prior to this year's season-opening win at Daytona.

"That would be awesome," Earnhardt said. "I haven't done that since the Nationwide days back in '98 or '99. We won a couple there back-to-back, I think. That's a really good feeling. Puts you right on top of the world.

"A win gives you a lot of confidence, but you know and realize how difficult those are to come by and how competitive this garage is. But man, when you win two in a row, man, that sets you apart a bit from your competition. That would be a great thing for us."

Equally important, what does his Pocono win mean going forward for the 12 races remaining in the regular season (pre-Chase)?

Now that he's a lock to make the Chase, the fourth driver with multiple wins this season in the Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte can continue business as usual, but with the luxury of a twist Earnhardt individually and Junior and Letarte collectively have never experienced.

Not only can they go for more wins, they also can afford to experiment a lot more, to try out new parts, different strategies and take chances in races where it makes sense, while taking a more cautious approach at other races where the risk doesn't equal the reward.

This is totally uncharted territory for Earnhardt. He's never gone into the Chase assured of making it this early in the season. And with the exception of 2004, when he had a single-season career high of six wins, he's never gone into any Chase in the position he is in now.

There's one other incentive: Junior is now part of the way toward achieving an equally big goal of winning the championship for himself and getting crew chief Steve Letarte the championship in his final season with Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports before he becomes a NASCAR TV analyst for NBC next year.

If Junior would be able to get both himself and Letarte a championship—their respective first titles each—it would finally fulfill 15 years of hard work while also easing broken dreams and too many shortcomings to count.

Even if Earnhardt wins this year but never wins another championship in the remaining seasons he has left in Sprint Cup, at least he'll always know that 2014 was a special year, that it was his year (and Letarte's). That will be something no one will ever be able to take away from him, and no one could continue to question whether he'd ever win the biggest prize in NASCAR.

"I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we're certainly at our highest ceiling," Earnhardt said. "We're doing some of our best work certainly right now. We have a lot of passion and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve's last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.

"So that can be dangerous, I think, for everybody else if we win to get better. We're still not the best team. ... There's areas where we can improve. But we're doing some great work, and I feel like what we do is really dependable. I think our team is very dependable and mistake free, so hopefully we can maintain that."

With almost his entire pit crew together for the entire Letarte era to date, what we're seeing now is the harvesting of fruit that is at its ripest and sweetest, according to Sporting News' Bob Pockrass:

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. thanks his crew after races, he means it—he knows he is working with a team that revived his career.

Sometimes, though, it is hard to tell, as thanking your crew is standard procedure for a driver. But with the big smile and shear joy Earnhardt has when celebrating with his team, there can be no doubt that he is having fun not just because he wins but because of whom is with him in victory lane.

In the most basic terms, Earnhardt's win Sunday win was just one in 36 races. The world didn't stop, a national holiday wasn't declared, the rest of the NASCAR season wasn't cancelled and Junior wasn't handed the Sprint Cup trophy.

But in the bigger, broader picture, it was a verification that Earnhardt is now more than just a once-in-a-while or once-in-every-few-years type of winner, while also renewing hope among his millions of diehard fans that yes, finally, this truly could be his year.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained from a NASCAR-provided post-race transcript.

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