Is Earnhardt ready for 1st win of year?

McClatchy news servicesApril 7, 2013 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he doesn’t expect to get much attention until he can win races this season.

Come on, now. It’s not every day NASCAR’s most popular driver leads the Sprint Cup series points standings while heading into one of his statistically strongest tracks.

Never mind that Earnhardt is off to the best start of his NASCAR career and that his average finish of 4.4 leads all competitors. And perhaps just overlook the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver this season to have finished in the top 10 in all five races.

Earnhardt’s ascension to the top of the standings has drawn plenty of attention entering today’s STP 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

“You know, if we go out and win some races, we’ll get credit where credit is due, but we ran well. … We’ve gotten lucky, we’ve had good cars, we’ve worked hard,” said Earnhardt, who will start 17th.

“But everybody in the garage has done the same thing, and there are other guys in the series that aren’t doing anything who are flashier than we are.”

The spotlight is never dim when it comes to Earnhardt, particularly when he is running well enough to prompt discussion of a first series championship.

Even though NASCAR fans have been inundated with discussion the past two weeks regarding Denny Hamlin’s back injury and Joey Logano’s run-ins with Hamlin and Tony Stewart, Earnhardt’s strong start to the season still resonates above the noise.

Asked if it was good for the sport to have Earnhardt as the points leader, reigning series champion Brad Keselowski quipped, “It doesn’t hurt, yeah.”

Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, said he thought Earnhardt was “a little more relaxed, confident and enjoying the moment.”

“I guess two or three years ago there were some points where it wasn’t as much fun and he wasn’t as competitive, and that is tough on anyone,” he said. “I see a lot more smiles and a lot more relaxed Dale Jr. than I have seen in the past.”

There is no reason Earnhardt’s mood should change this weekend.

While he has never won at Martinsville, Earnhardt has led more laps (868) at the track than any other. Martinsville is also tied for his most top-fives (10) and second-most top-10 finishes (14).

Earnhardt finished third in last spring’s Martinsville race.

PIT STOPS

Johnny Sauter passed Jeb Burton for the lead on a restart with 17 laps to go Saturday and won the NASCAR truck race at Martinsville. It was his second victory in as many races in the series this season. … Defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay won the pole Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., ending Penske Racing’s three year qualifying run. Hunter-Reay grabbed the top starting spot for today’s race with a lap of 1:07.0871 around the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course. He beat two-time defending race winner Will Power. … Allen Johnson raced to victory in the K&N Horsepower Challenge, the special Pro Stock bonus event, Saturday at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas. In other action, Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) earned No. 1 qualifying positions.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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