LONG POND, Pa. - When he headed to New York for the 2004 NASCAR awards celebration, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had every reason to feel good about himself.
Already established as the sport's most popular driver and a prohibitive favorite on restrictor-plate tracks, Earnhardt had followed up his career-best third-place finish in the 2003 points standings with a fifth-place effort in 2004.
Yet in a sit-down with a handful of reporters in a swank Manhattan hotel suite, Junior was in no mood to party. Openly fretting about having just turned 30, Earnhardt appeared weary from carrying the weight of being The Intimidator's son.
The time since that cold December afternoon has not been kind, with Junior finishing 12th or worse in all but one of the six subsequent seasons - including a messy separation from the team his father founded, and very public, very dysfunctional relationships with a host of crew chiefs.
But following another round of offseason housecleaning at Hendrick Motorsports, it's clear that Earnhardt is in another, more comfortable place.
In forming a bond with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has the No. 88 Chevrolet third in the Sprint Cup standings and appears determined to carry the momentum of a pair of near-wins into Sunday's 5-hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway.
"Basically we changed everything," Earnhardt said. "I'm in a new shop [with] a new team [and a] new crew chief. I don't know what else different I can do."
A victory would be a good place to start after Earnhardt's 106-race winless streak. His last victory was on June 15, 2008.
But even after running out of fuel while leading on the final lap May 29 and finishing runner-up last Sunday, Earnhardt appears cool, confident, and driven to do better - and not dwell on what went wrong.
"It's not frustrating, I'm running good," he said of his latest, best shots at returning to Victory Lane. "I'm just trying to be productive, show up on time, and try to work hard. That's where you want to be - close. If we're not winning, it's still better than running damn 25th or 30th every week, I'll tell you that."
That Earnhardt opened the season with an accident and a 24th-place finish could have proved problematic in the past. Instead, that outing has been his worst this season, with 11 finishes of 14th or better in the last dozen races.
And, in contrast to pointing a finger of blame, as he has done countless times over the years, Earnhardt is quick to heap praise on Letarte and his current crew.
"I feel like it's a good relationship," he said. "Hopefully everybody on the team is enjoying what we're doing. I'm certainly having a good time. We're not satisfied, we want to win races, and I know the guys are itching to get in Victory Lane. If we work hard we'll get rewarded."
A strong run in Sunday's race could go a long way in proving that Earnhardt is a bona fide championship contender. Pocono's triangular track, with its varying elevations and slightly sloped corners, has presented a challenge over the years.
In 22 starts here, Earnhardt's best finish was second in August 2007, and he has cracked the top 10 just a half-dozen times.
Earnhardt was 13th-quickest in both practice sessions on Friday, and picked up some speed in Saturday's qualifying round. But the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevy topped out at 169.447 m.p.h. and will start 21st in the 43-car field.
"It's a pretty tough racetrack with all three corners being really different. The car wants to drive different through all three corners," Earnhardt said.
Notes. Kurt Busch posted the top speed of 171.579 m.p.h. Saturday to claim the pole position for Sunday's race. . . . Tim George Jr. celebrated his first career victory despite leading just three laps, winning the fog and rain-shortened ARCA Pocono 200 in the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. Tom Hessert of Cherry Hill placed ninth.
Read how Kurt Busch rode his backup car
to the pole position at www.philly.com/racingEndText