Originally Published: August 4, 2014

Sunday Convo: Earnhardt's Dream Season?

Sprint Cup: Hendrick's faith in Dale Jr. paying off

By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Of course Dale Earnhardt Jr. heard it, and read it, from the Junior haters -- and even thought it himself: Maybe Rick Hendrick ought to fire him.

Six years, four of them with goose eggs in the wins column, the best two with a single win in each.

"He had every right in the world to replace me with another driver and nobody would have said a thing about it," Earnhardt told reporters at Pocono on Sunday after sweeping the triangular track's Cup races this season and running his wins total to three.

As of now, he's the top seed in the Chase, where in other years at this point in the season it was iffy whether he'd make NASCAR's playoffs at all -- and even then would have been viewed as a nominal entry, not a real contender.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesThe top-seeded Chase driver after Sunday? That would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who celebrated his third victory of 2014 -- and second at Pocono.

Haters ridiculed him and his 88 team as the weakest link in the four-car Hendrick Motorsports armada.

Now he and the 88 are the strongest.

That became evident when he seized the lead with 14 laps to go Sunday and then held off Kevin Harvick on a late restart.

As for Earnhardt's teammates, the erstwhile flagship 48 team of Jimmie Johnson limped home a miserable 39th after getting itself into tire trouble yet again. Johnson tacked that one onto finishes of 42nd, 42nd and 14th in his previous three races.

Jeff Gordon, who led a race-high 63 laps, wound up sixth. Kasey Kahne finished 10th and didn't lead a single lap.

Hendrick wasn't there Sunday, but Earnhardt, on his phone from Victory Lane, "told him thanks for believing in me and making my life better," Earnhardt said.

For years, "We weren't running good enough and it would have made perfect sense to everybody if he had went that route [firing Junior]," Earnhardt said.

"But he stuck with me and said, 'We're going to make it right. We're going to make it right.'

"And he put me with Steve [Letarte]," the crew chief who sat beside Earnhardt Sunday at the winners' interview, and who has turned Earnhardt's outlook and career around.

"It was touch-and-go there for a while," Earnhardt said of the early period of his pairing with Letarte, "but we have worked, we have done some good things together and we have continued to get better and we finally are realizing that potential and doing the things on the racetrack that we dreamed about when we first started working together."

So, all told, Rick Hendrick, the man so reverently called "Mr. Hendrick" by all of his employees for his kindnesses to them, "has helped me become a better person," Earnhardt said, "put me around people that influence me to be a better person, so I just want him to know that I appreciate it."

Cup Rundown: Logano, Bowyer and Kahne


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