- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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It used to be a no-brainer which driver you would pick if you were starting a Sprint Cup team or picking a weekly fantasy lineup. Busch was such a prohibitive favorite that it seemed silly to put Earnhardt into the equation.
One national publication called it one of the most lopsided trade-offs in the history of NASCAR when Earnhardt came to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Kyle Busch after the 2007 season.
Maybe of all sports.
Those first few years Earnhardt earned lower scores for wins, top-5s, top-10s, poles and even desire. People were saying he would never win another race, while Busch was being called one of the greatest to drive a stock car, earning comparisons to Earnhardt's famous seven-time champion dad.
Not anymore. Picking Busch over Earnhardt no longer is a slam dunk. It's not even a layup.
One could make the case that Earnhardt has pulled even, maybe surged ahead now that he's added performance to his popularity.
In case you missed it, Earnhardt leads the points standings for the first time in eight years after his series-best ninth top-5 on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also has a win this season.
Busch is 11th in the standings with one victory. His average finish is 15.4, almost twice that of the 8.0 Earnhardt has put up.
"I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I would never be competitive again," Earnhardt said before Friday's first practice for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway (1 p.m. ET, ESPN). "Aside from winning a few more races, I don't know how much more of a statement I could have made than we've made this year."
But Earnhardt remembers those days when Busch and others took shots at him. He'd have to be deaf not to.
It reached a peak in 2009 when Earnhardt's longtime crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr., was replaced by Lance McGrew.
"It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief," Busch said the following week at Dover.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn't stop there. When asked about McGrew, with whom he worked at Hendrick Motorsports, Busch said, "He's got his hands full, I guess, having to deal with what's going on. And if Junior doesn't run well, then he [McGrew] is going to be the problem again."
To which Earnhardt responded, "He's always had a chip on his shoulder for me, so I expect any time he gets an opportunity to throw a jab in there he's going to do it. That's just his personality."
Oh, and there were more jabs.
"You've got to make the most popular driver in the sport competitive, so you gotta do what you gotta do, I guess," Busch said.
You don't hear those jabs these days. Credit some of that to Busch growing up. Also credit Earnhardt for performing to a standard that doesn't leave him or his team open to jokes.
"I know what we need to be focusing on, and it's not whether I got back at somebody or vindicated myself as much as just focusing on what we're trying to do today," Earnhardt said.
He's done that. Earnhardt's body language as he talked about the turnaround is totally different from what it was a year ago. Instead of hemming and hawing, scratching the back of his head and looking down, he looks straight into the eyes of the person asking questions and delivers with an air of confidence.
Instead of hoping his team becomes competitive, he's talking about winning races and a championship.
"It's 180 degrees really the way I feel and approach the sport and my job now," Earnhardt said. "When I wasn't competitive, that's all you wanted to be, to run up front, run in the top five, the top 10, just to have good runs.
"It didn't make any difference to be in the Chase if you didn't feel like you could win the championship."
Now Earnhardt is among a handful of drivers considered legitimate championship contenders. There's way more talk about him winning the title than Busch. Busch isn't even guaranteed a spot in the Chase.
If Ryan Newman or Joey Logano get a second win over the next six races and Busch doesn't, they're in and he's out. That could happen, too. Logano returns to Pocono with the same car he won the pole and race with in June.
Earnhardt could take a race or two off and still make the Chase.
"It's not a fluke," HMS teammate Jeff Gordon said of the No. 88 team's performance. "They're the real deal this year. Junior's attitude and his focus and with how hard he's working is all showing up."
Yeah, yeah, you need to look at the big picture and not just a snapshot from this season when discussing whether Earnhardt has caught or overtaken the driver he replaced at HMS. When you do that the pendulum swings back toward Busch.
Busch has 20 wins over the last four-plus seasons to Earnhardt's two. He has 56 top-5s to Earnhardt's 28. He has three Chase appearances to Earnhardt's two.
But at least there's an argument now, where there wasn't one prior to this season, when Earnhardt was finishing 21st and 25th in the standings, when he was building a losing streak that would reach 143 consecutive races before ending this year at Michigan.
"Kyle is an amazing talent," five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said when asked to evaluate the two drivers. "He has gone to Gibbs and really developed their equipment and has driven Gibbs into the forefront of racing week in and week out.
"It's hard to say one got a better deal out of all of it. Business was a part of it. Right now, everyone [at HMS] is running well, so that's good."
Drivers don't want to get into the business -- or drama -- of saying another driver is better than the other, or one is a better teammate than the other.
"I try to worry about myself," Kevin Harvick said diplomatically.
But there's no doubt when you add performance to popularity and the business advantages that brings, Earnhardt gets the edge against any driver.
This really isn't about Earnhardt versus Busch anymore. It's not about vindication, it's about validation.
"These things are validating our effort," Earnhardt said of leading the points and being a championship contender. "I've worked my tail off for most of my career with little gain -- no gain. This year, it's been awesome to go to the track and work with [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and come away really happy with what happened.
"I'm enjoying that. The point lead is sort of a symbolic piece to all that effort."
But if you do want to make it about Earnhardt and Busch this weekend, Pocono is symbolic of this season. Earnhardt finished eighth at the "Tricky Triangle" in June and was leading with 36 laps remaining when Letarte brought him in for fuel.
Others gambled on fuel and made it, including winner Joey Logano.
Busch? He had engine problems and finished 30th.
"We feel like we had a good enough car to win last time," Earnhardt said. "That's what we've been thinking about most of the week, fuel mileage, the fact we would have made it and we gave up the opportunity to win by coming down pit road."
That's what Earnhardt should be thinking about.
It's not about him and Busch anymore.