Junior back on top of Cup world

INDIANAPOLIS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't remember the last time he led the Sprint Cup standings as he stood on pit road following Sunday's Brickyard 400.

So I refreshed his memory.

It was 29 races into the 2004 season when NASCAR's most popular driver won at Talladega Superspeedway. He left the track that October day with a 13-point lead over Kurt Busch. Junior Nation and NASCAR Nation were ecstatic.

Unfortunately, Earnhardt was so ecstatic that day when asked what it meant to win for the fifth time at Talladega he said a bad word -- on national television.

"It don't mean s--- right now," Earnhardt shouted into the camera. "Daddy's won here 10 times."

That cost him 25 points and the points lead.

Earnhardt smiled when reminded of that following his fourth-place finish Sunday in the Brickyard 400 that moved him 14 points ahead of Matt Kenseth.

"I'm not excited enough to have that happen, I guess," he said.

Don't get Earnhardt wrong. He's happy to have the points lead. It's been 280 races officially, to New Hampshire 27 races into the 2004 season, since he actually had the lead.

But this isn't something Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte will celebrate. They have more important goals, such as winning a few more races to put them in position to lead the points going into the Chase, and ultimately winning the title.

They would much rather have been a hundred yards away, on their knees where Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 crew were, kissing the bricks as is the tradition for the race winner.

So they contained themselves as they took question after question on what it meant to be on top of the Cup world again.

"It says a lot about our body of work all year, how hard we've worked and how well we've done," Earnhardt said. "I'm real proud of how we've done. We've got a symbolic points lead to prove it."

But …

There was a but almost every time Earnhardt answered the same question.

"You run in the top five or top 10 enough you'll get enough points," said Earnhardt, who has a series-high nine top-5s this season. "We'd like to win some races. I know our fans would like us to win some more races, too."

A group of fans standing near Earnhardt screamed their approval of his comments.

"I would, too," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt took the points lead because he did what he has all season. He had a car with speed, although not nearly as much as Johnson's. He got solid pit stops from his crew and he hung around the top 10 all day without making a mistake.

Oh, and there was that little mishap with 26 laps remaining when Joey Logano -- in the car Kenseth is slated to drive next season at Joe Gibbs Racing -- started a chain reaction that wrecked Kenseth.

"Yeah, it's frustrating," Kenseth said after finishing 35th.

Earnhardt has had little frustration this season. That he finished fourth at a track where he has had nothing but frustration, finishing 14th or worse in nine of the past 10 races, showed just how far he and his team have come.

"You've got to learn how to get around this place before you expect to win races," Earnhardt said. "We had a good car and did something with it. Just a lot of good things happening this year. I just hope we can keep it going."

Leading the points is a step in the right direction.

"You can't win the championship until you lead the points," Letarte said. "To lead at any time in the season, especially this late in the season, proves this team is capable of winning a championship.

"We definitely haven't hit our stride yet. There's still room for improvement."

Then he reiterated the importance of winning a few more races beyond the one they already have before the Chase. He and Earnhardt understand if the Chase started today they would be in fifth place behind teammate Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart -- who have three wins each -- and Denny Hamlin, who has two, because the field is set by bonus points for wins.

As happy as everyone, including fellow drivers, was for Earnhardt to end his four-year, 143-race losing streak last month at Michigan, they should be wary of him now.

"I think they stopped cheering for us after we won Michigan," Letarte said with a laugh.

There's a confidence about Letarte and Earnhardt that wasn't there a year ago. There's a confidence in the shop shared by Earnhardt and Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports that never has been there.

One could argue the favorite to win the title has to be in that shop now.

Sounds funny, doesn't it? Earnhardt a title contender.

"Awesome," Earnhardt said. "We would actually rather us two fight for the championship at the end and one of us is going to get it for the company," Earnhardt said. "If I could line that up right now, I would."

It's starting to line up, but Earnhardt's right in that there's a long way to go. We saw that last season when Tony Stewart went from nowhere to champion with five wins in the Chase.

So forgive Earnhardt and Letarte if they don't show as much enthusiasm as Junior Nation will, as team owner Rick Hendrick did when he radioed, "Nice run today points leader."

"Without a doubt we feel good, but feeling good in July and August doesn't guarantee a championship in November, so we know we have a lot of work to do," Letarte said. "The tough part is when you have speed, everyone is gunning for you. You have to make sure your group at home and at the team knows you have to keep working hard."

And no, Letarte couldn't remember the last time Earnhardt led the standings, either.

"We just want to compete week in and week out," he said. "I feel we're doing that."

That could lead to something much bigger than a points lead.