Dale Earnhardt Jr. closing in on Victory Lane

With Sunday’s running of the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, we’re just three races in on the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. But I don’t think it’s too early to predict that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on his way back to Victory Lane.

After leading 70 of the first 73 laps – he led more laps in this race than he did during the entire 2011 season – Earnhardt Jr. pitted under caution on Lap 74 and took four tires, when most of the field elected for two. He restarted 18th and eventually made his way up to second, but quickly lost position as he struggled with his car’s handling.

“I knew by the end of the race, especially with all of those cautions we had at the end, that it was going to be a really tight race track and we needed to free the car up,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I didn’t get Steve [Letarte, crew chief] enough information throughout the day to really give him the idea of how tight the car was. The car was just really tight. We should have worked on it during the day and I should have given Steve a little more heads up on what was happening.”

Around 25 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. gave former teammate Mark Martin a bump in response to a move just a few moments prior to the incident. He ended the day with a 10th-place finish and advanced one position to fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings.

“I don’t have a problem with Mark and have so much respect for him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But to me, personally, there is an unwritten etiquette that when the guy is running the top even if you are clearing him or passing him -- if you barely clear him off the corner -- I’m coming 10 miles an hour faster off the top of the race track, you stay low. Don’t knock a half second off my lap time being a jerk about it. Stay low. You are going to get it in the next corner and the position is going to be yours. Don’t pull up in front of somebody when they are going to come off the corner 10 miles an hour faster.

“I didn’t really mean to put him in the wall but from the cosmetic standpoint it didn’t look like it hurt his car. Probably looked like it knocked some of the right front suspension off of it and I am sorry about that. But, you know I felt like I was pretty frustrated at the moment before that happened and that just kind of really sent me over the edge there. We just want to win really bad and felt like we should have finished better than we did today.”

Earnhardt Jr. had my attention Sunday. He was competitive, he was intense and he was mature. You can hear the desire in his voice. He is busting to get the job done and I have no doubt he will earn a couple of wins this year. He earned both his first NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Texas.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end his winless streak here next month during the Samsung Mobile 500.