Is this Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s year?
CHICAGO -- "We made a lot of changes. Every year there was a reason to get back on board and hope it was going to work, and this year is why it's going to be different. I think it's for real this time. They're a legitimate team. They can contend."
This was Dale Earnhardt Jr. talking about his beloved Washington Redskins during Tuesday's visit to the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn.
This easily could have been Earnhardt talking about his Sprint Cup team on Wednesday in Chicago.
Think about the changes that have been made to the No. 88 team over the years. Think about how every season fans jump on the Junior Nation bandwagon, believing this is the year the changes are going to work and he's going to win a title that his father won seven times.
This time, though, it is for real.
This time Earnhardt is on a legitimate championship-caliber team.
This time he can contend.
Even defending Cup champion Tony Stewart, who included NASCAR's most popular driver along with himself as a driver who had no chance this time a year ago, believes Earnhardt can win it all.
"I definitely would not eliminate Dale Jr. this year," Stewart said during NASCAR's pre-Chase media kickoff at the House of Blues. "He's just been very consistent.
"After last year, I'm not going to eliminate anybody. I obviously proved I'm not very good at predicting things. I don't think Vegas is going to call and have me come out and handicap."
There will be plenty of storylines as the next 10 weeks unfold. Can Denny Hamlin end a four-year streak of the top seed finishing no better than fourth in the Chase? Can Jeff Gordon fulfill the promise to grow back that god-awful mustache he had in the early 1990s if he made the Chase, and maintain the momentum that got him into the playoff to win his fifth title? Can Jimmie Johnson win a sixth title?
Can Matt Kenseth, heading to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, win a title as a lame-duck driver at Roush Fenway Racing? Can Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing win a title while transitioning from Dodge to Ford? Can Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. pull a Stewart and go from winless in the regular season to champion? Can Clint Bowyer really throw a better party than Johnson as he vowed if he wins the title?
Can Stewart win a fourth title?
But no storyline will get more attention than Earnhardt going for his first title. OK, had Earnhardt not said in Wednesday's story in the National Enquirer that he and girlfriend Amy Reimann were getting married was "totally false," there might have been some competition.
And Gordon's attempt to bring back bad grooming is getting a lot of attention, too.
But for the first time since 2004, when Earnhardt went into the finale with a mathematical chance to win the championship, he really does have a legitimate shot.
"Maybe '04 he might have been [a threat]," Gordon said. "But to me, this is the first real legitimate shot that I consider for them."
Ditto, said Greg Biffle, who was the points leader before the standings were reshuffled for the Chase.
"To stay on the good side of all those Dale Jr. fans, I'm going to say he has a better chance than ever -- by far right now -- to win it," Biffle said.
Look at the facts: Earnhardt's average finish of 9.1 is tops among the contenders. His 17 top-10s are tied with Johnson for first. His average finish from his last outing at the Chase tracks -- including Chicago and Homestead-Miami Speedway from last season -- is 7.0.
Johnson, by the way, had an average finish of 6.9 during his streak of five straight titles.
But more important, there is an inner peace and outward confidence in Earnhardt like we've never seen before. He believes, as he said earlier in the season, he is the best driver. He believes he can win it all.
Not that believing is essential. Stewart was so confident he wouldn't win a year ago that he promised to declare himself a "bumbling idiot" if he did.
We all know how that turned out.
But Stewart had past experience of winning titles to fall back on when he found himself in a barnburner with Carl Edwards. All Earnhardt has is confidence.
"It's higher now," Earnhardt said of his confidence now and when he contended for the title in 2004. "I was really naive back then when I had those opportunities. I didn't realize how much of a shot I had back then.
"I can make more use of that opportunity at this age."
There's a parallel in Earnhardt's confidence in himself and his confidence in the Redskins.
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His confidence in the Skins comes from the performance he saw from rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in a season-opening win at New Orleans. His confidence in himself comes from the performance of his team over the past seven months.
Performance breeds confidence and enhances expectations.
"I think back how we won those Nationwide Series championships," Earnhardt said of his 1999 and 1998 titles in NASCAR's second-tier series. "I didn't know how to race for a championship. We just went out and ran as hard as we could and got a big enough lead to lock it up early.
"I thought at that time I knew how to win championships, but I really didn't."
Earnhardt is smarter these days. He makes better decisions on and off the track. He knows how to turn a bad day into a good one and a good one into a really good one thanks to the ever-evolving relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte.
Everybody can see it.
"I like Dale Jr.," Bowyer said. "He's as focused and determined as I've ever seen."
The Michael Waltrip Racing driver paused, smiled and added, "I hope his chances are terrible."
Bowyer knows better, though. This, as driver after driver said during this media blitz, is the most wide-open Chase ever. There isn't one driver, much less five as Stewart predicted a year ago, who doesn't have a realistic chance.
That Earnhardt does is big, though. It adds an element of excitement to the Chase when the driver who sells the most souvenirs is in the running.
It's the same sort of excitement NFL fans are feeling in Washington after the statement RG3 made on Sunday. Even Earnhardt's excitement level goes up when he talks about the Redskins, as he was given repeated opportunities during his trip to ESPN.
"I enjoyed the s--- out of that," Earnhardt said. "It was fun."
He hopes this Chase is fun so his comments about the Redskins reflect what people are saying about him and his team.
"I just feel like I'm a lot smarter," Earnhardt said of his chances. "It's taken a lot of mistakes to get smarter, and I feel like if I do what I need to do on the racetrack, then I can put myself in a good position to win this one."
There's no reason to think he won't -- for a change.
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