Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crazy, crazy week

SONOMA, Calif. -- No truth to the rumor this weekend that the Robert Mondavi Winery will offer a new vintage called Junebug Merlot: a special red wine that will be bottled only once every four years.

OK, I made that up, but it's not a bad idea, considering the NASCAR world is giddy with intoxication after Dale "Junebug" Earnhardt Jr.'s victory last weekend at Michigan.

The most popular driver in NASCAR is a winner again after a four-year hiatus from Victory Lane. For NASCAR, that's as good as it gets. For Earnhardt, it has been a week to remember.

"The reaction is always bigger than what you imagine," Earnhardt said Friday. "Just a lot of people reach out to you that you don't think about. I've heard from so many people. You realize how something like this affects a lot of people and makes a big difference in their lives."

Earnhardt gave one example in a story his brother-in-law, L.W. Miller III (sister Kelley's husband), told him this week.

"L.W. told me his friend's dad had gotten really sick," Earnhardt said. "He wasn't able to recognize his own son, but the last couple of days all he has talked about is that race and us winning.

"That kind of brings it all home for me. So I don't ever take it for granted about people caring that much. Little things like that are what made this week pretty special."

Just ending a 143-race losing streak was special for everyone on Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevy team.

"I think it helps us as a team to know we can do it," he said. "And it makes us even more hungry to go do it again."

Unfortunately, unless a miracle with one lap to go Sunday propels his car to the front, Earnhardt fans probably won't see back-to-back victories.

Earnhardt never has won back-to-back in his career, but road courses are Kryptonite for him. You would be hard-pressed to find a worse place for Earnhardt to try to back up his victory than the 10-turn course at Sonoma.

His average finish here is 22nd. He never has posted a top-10 finish at Sonoma.

"I haven't got the best record at this track, but it's still a fun track," Earnhardt said. "I have a good attitude about it, but I know it's not where my bread is buttered."

Crew chief Steve Letarte isn't conceding anything this weekend.

"I don't think any of us on our race team question his ability to go out there and run well," Letarte said of Earnhardt's road-racing abilities. "Sonoma is a place where we look to improve. As far as our consistency [on road courses], we have worked very hard. We've been to Road Atlanta and tested."

Letarte said there is no road-course dread this week.

"I don't think the win could have come at a better time," Letarte said. "There's a lot of opportunities [at Sonoma] with restarts and fuel strategies. We're looking forward to it. We're going to enjoy ourselves."

The whole week has been enjoyable for Earnhardt and everyone on the team, but it has been busy. Earnhardt has appeared on more TV and radio programs this week than you usually see for the man who wins the Daytona 500.

It shows the power of Earnhardt's popularity and what he means to NASCAR. When Earnhardt does well, it's the same effect as Tiger Woods contending in a golf tournament. People who normally don't pay attention suddenly are watching and listening.

But it takes winning again before most people start believing. Earnhardt already was having one of the best years of his career before his victory Sunday.

He leads Sprint Cup with 12 top-10s in 15 races and ranks second in the standings, only four points behind Matt Kenseth. But his critics still have blasted him this year, saying he can't win and he's overrated.

The talk has changed this week. Something that was unthinkable, even laughable, a couple of years ago, is being asked: Can Earnhardt win the championship?

"We've been doing this a long time and haven't really competed for a title yet," Earnhardt said. "This seems to be my best opportunity. I've been putting a lot more into my racing. You ask yourself every day, 'Can I work harder, be smarter and bring more to the table?' You can't get complacent."

NASCAR president Mike Helton said last weekend that he considers Earnhardt "the man to beat" for the 2012 Cup title. Of course, it's in Helton's best interest to say that, but it's not a farfetched notion.

It's not because he won at Michigan in dominating fashion. It's the fact that the 88 Chevy team is racing as well as any team in the sport right now. Consider these stats:

• Earnhardt has finished eighth or better in the past four races.
• He has posted top-10s in 10 of the past 11 races.
• He has led a lap in five of the past six races.
• He doesn't have a DNF this season.
• Earnhardt is the only driver who has finished on the lead lap at every race this year, completing all 4,648 laps.

Impressive stuff, and the rest of the guys in the Cup garage have noticed. Most of the other drivers understand it's good for the series if Earnhardt run well.

I think it helps us as a team to know we can do it. And it makes us even more hungry to go do it again.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"The 88 has been the most consistent car throughout the year," Kevin Harvick said Friday. "The way they have run has been fun to see. Everybody wanted to see him win. It was good to see him in Victory Lane and get the media to stop talking about him losing. It was good for him to get that pressure off."

In Harvick's opinion, the main reason for Earnhardt's turnaround is obvious -- Letarte, who became Earnhardt's crew chief last season.

"Steve is great for him," Harvick said. "There probably is not a better motivator in the garage than Steve. I don't see a lot of difference from last year in what they're doing, but it takes time to build things the way you want them. They have that now."

Jimmie Johnson, whose No. 48 Chevy team shares the same building with the 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, sees it every week.

"The pairing of Steve and Junior couldn't have been better," Johnson said. "Those two have built a great friendship and relationship. They have a lot of respect for each other.

"Rick [Hendrick] had that vision. Rick is the one that moved that around and made it happen. They're showing what they can do now. There's going to be a lot more success to come."

Life is good for Earnhardt, maybe better than it ever has been. He has a steady girlfriend in Amy Reimann, who seems to be the light of his life these days. But other things have changed for him, as well.

"My lifestyle has changed quite a bit this year," Earnhardt said. "I'm not spending as much time on the computer as I used to. And I get out more. I'm playing softball in Mooresville [N.C.] in a league there. It's all the employees at JR Motorsports. We're in the playoffs. It's fun."

Earnhardt is a happy man, something no one would have said two years ago. These are fun times for him, on the track and off.

"You just try to keep learning as a person," Earnhardt said. "We have a lot of confidence right now. This is the best I've felt in a really long time."

A few people here this weekend might even raise a glass of Napa Valley wine in his honor, no matter what you call it.