Dale Earnhardt Jr. win would stir pot

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged onto the back step of his Nationwide Series hauler Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway, took off his cap and put it back on backward.

Everyone is looking for signs that NASCAR's most popular driver is back.
Perhaps this is one.

When Earnhardt came into the sport he always wore his cap backward. It was the cool thing to do. Hip. Different.

But over the past few years, the more he's become indoctrinated into the system, he's worn hats with the bill in front more times than not like almost every other driver in the garage. Maybe this reversal, which he also did during prerace introductions at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is a sign he has reversed his fortune.

Maybe the swagger really is back and he's ready to win a Sprint Cup race.

Or maybe it's because Earnhardt was wearing a fitted hat and he likes to wear them backward.

Regardless, on a weekend when the sports world is focused on the NCAA basketball tournament, a win by Earnhardt may be the one thing that could turn the attention from the Morehead States and Butlers of the world.

That or a cage fight at the start-finish line as Ryan Newman's crew chief Tony Gibson suggested.

"If he gets confidence in him, he'll be badass," said Gibson, who worked on Earnhardt's team as a crew chief and crew member at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Maybe the hat is him saying, 'I'm confident.'"

Earnhardt has good reason to be confident. He's 10th in points and coming off consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since the middle of last season. He's preparing for a track on which his 11.5 average finish is the best among the next eight stops before the Sprint All-Star Race.

"Yeah, Junior is well on his way to what I would call a recovery," Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin said. "It's been a tough stretch for him. He is incredibly committed this year and is feeling comfortable, confident, more confident."

Martin hasn't noticed the way Earnhardt is wearing his cap, but he has noticed the energy around him.

"He's in the top five or 10 engaged drivers in the sport," he said. "He really wants this to work."

So does NASCAR, particularly as it heads into a four-week stretch when college basketball and then the Masters take center stage in sports. A victory by the driver that controls about a third of the fan base at arguably the most exciting track on the circuit could rival a No. 1 seed losing.

"There's some pretty passionate basketball fans out there," Earnhardt said when asked if a win by him would shake up the sports world. "Yeah, I mean, I think they deserve some of the headlines.

"Pretty good stuff."

He's right. But there's usually pretty good stuff at Bristol as well, and to top that with an Earnhardt win would demand more than a mention in most newspapers and newscasts.

"Dale Jr. winning a race would steal a lot of headlines from anything," teammate Jeff Gordon said. "That would be huge. That would be great for the sport, sports in general. It's something that's been a long time coming. I know how much that would mean to him and our organization.

"It would make a huge impact, not just here in our series."

It's been 96 races since Earnhardt last won. Only a few times during that stretch has he legitimately had a shot to win.

But anybody who has known Earnhardt for longer than a few races believes the streak won't last much longer.

Even Earnhardt feels the end is near.

"Yeah, I feel we've made some steps that have helped us," he said. "We got a long ways to go, though. We have to temper our expectations and just try to maintain our focus on what that job is that day, that moment, just do what we need to do, do it as good as we can, try to get competitive, stay competitive, try to do a good job in the races.

"We'll see."

Earnhardt unloaded fast at Bristol, shooting up to second behind teammate Jimmie Johnson early in Friday's first practice. Starting fast and finishing strong, as compared to struggling early and improving at the end, could be the next step in the recovery.

"It would be nice to get to that point," Earnhardt said.

If you've noticed, the crew chief change hasn't been mentioned yet, but it has played a role in the upbeat mood around the No. 88 team. Earnhardt concedes the clean slate with Steve Letarte has been good, allowing "me to sort of reboot a little bit."

He also knows that it was just a year ago that team owner Rick Hendrick publicly said he was happy with the communication between him and then-crew chief Lance McGrew when they left Bristol in the top 10 in points.

"That's going to be the part that is the hardest and that will determine whether we'll succeed or not, is whether we can keep that going over the entire season," Earnhardt said of his communication with Letarte. "The season is long -- you get pissed off. Things don't go right -- you get pissed off.

"You've just got to get through those points when they happen, whether it be in practice or whatever. The littlest thing, you've got to be able to manage it and not let it ruin things."

Earnhardt has a history of letting little things ruin his day. That often turns into explosive tirades over the radio, as was the case during this race a year ago after a pit road speeding penalty.

Remember? McGrew told his driver "don't lay down on me, bud." Earnhardt responded with a profanity-laced meltdown that had us wondering if he and his crew chief really were working together as well as Hendrick said.

Earnhardt said afterward the incident ticked him off, "because that's a little touchy subject with me."

"People have always been giving me s--- about my motivation ... all my career," Earnhardt said after the race. "Whether I'm not focused enough, whether I've got the desire, the passion, all that stuff.

"Anytime anybody sort of touches on that type of s---, it pisses me off. Plus I wasn't in a good mood at the time."

Earnhardt was in a really good mood Friday, even though he tempered his excitement because knows bad times can bite you at any moment.

But he has created a buzz, one that could turn deafening in the sports world if he were to win Sunday.

Then he could turn his cap around and do the traditional hat dance in Victory Lane.

"He'll win pretty soon," Gibson said. "Maybe here."

Now that would be March Madness.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.