Dale Earnhardt Jr. works his way down a line of autograph seekers during… (Drew Hallowell / Getty Images/NASCAR )
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has returned to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings for the first time in eight years.
How long has it been? In the interim, Jimmie Johnson won an unprecedented five consecutive Sprint Cup championships, the Boston Red Sox not only broke their 86-year World Series drought but twice won the title and Brett Favre finally retired.
Not that becoming an also-ran ever hurt the man they call Junior, whose father was one of the fiercest racers on the circuit before his death in the Daytona 500 in 2001. Earnhardt Jr. is by far the most popular driver in NASCAR, win or lose.
He ended an epic winless streak at 143 races with a victory at Michigan in June and has suddenly finished in the top five in three of the last four races to claim the Sprint Cup lead as the series heads to Pocono in Long Pond, Pa., on Sunday.
“I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I wouldn't ever be competitive again,” said Earnhardt, who has finally found success after five years with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports -- home to former Cup champions Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- and a switch to crew chief Steve Letarte.
“I think a lot of people downplay it,” he said of his recent success. “I think it means the same to those other drivers, probably, but they downplay it obviously because the guys that are saying that may find themselves in the points lead or battling for it more often than I have been. It's been a long time since I was in the points lead. It's been forever.”
Earnhardt, who leads Matt Kenseth by 14 points, will make the coveted Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. With six races left to determine the 10 Chase qualifiers, Earnhardt knows he could easily be overtaken by Kenseth, Johnson, defending champion Tony Stewart or Brad Keselowski, who all have three victories compared to Earnhardt's lone win.
“The points lead recognizes all that hard work for me and I think for the team,” Earnhardt said. “I'll say what everybody else says: It's not the championship. Leading the points today isn't as awesome as winning the championship and going to Vegas as the top dog, but it does feel good 20 races into the year to have put more points on the board than any other team.
“The closer we get to the Chase,” Earnhardt said, “the more real the opportunity seems.”
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.