What a difference a year has made for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Just not in a way that may first seem apparent.
Through the season’s first seven races last season, Earnhardt was sixth in the Sprint Cup Series standings and had four top-five finishes.
After seven races this season, Earnhardt is seventh in the series standings and again has four top-five finishes.
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Sounds like nearly identical starts – save one very important caveat. Last season at this time, Earnhardt already had one series victory. He is still looking for his first win of 2015 entering Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
With NASCAR’s new Chase format implemented last year, Earnhardt is already noticing a significant change in how he and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team view a season without a victory (so far).
"Nothing is a sure thing. I want to win to know I’m in (the Chase). I don't want to wait all the way to Richmond (in September) to count points," he said. "Once you get that win, you get to do things with fuel mileage, you get to be aggressive – if you're a couple laps short you stretch it.
"We won some races last year doing that. Just mentally you don't have as much pressure on you to make a call right."
Earnhardt believes a large measure of his and then-crew chief Steve Letarte’s success last season could be traced back to his season-opening Daytona 500 victory and virtually locking themselves into the Chase on the season’s first weekend.
"I'll tell you, and Steve will probably admit it, last season is probably the easiest season he had to call because of that win," Earnhardt said. "It really took the pressure off him having to worry about, ‘Man, do I take four (tires), two, do I don't stop?’
"We've got a win. If we finish 10th, who cares, second, who cares? We've already got a win, we're locked in. You can be really aggressive.
"I don’t know what it’s like to be a crew chief, but I imagine it seems pretty hectic, and once you get them wins, the pressure really releases a little bit."
Although he hasn’t secured a victory yet this season, Earnhardt is in no danger of missing the Chase. It’s unlikely there will ever be more 16 or more different winners in the season’s first 26 races so some drivers will get in the Chase by their standing in points.
Right now, Earnhardt’s team is among the most consistent in the series even without the victory.
"Our cars are really good. Our motors are amazing. I'll be honest, I mean, I've been a lot more competitive over the last couple years," he said. "We've got a lot of great people working at that organization, but my resurgence or whatever you want to call it is mainly due to how good the cars are, how fast the cars are, how well prepared we are, how much work we do.
"We do a lot of work."
Part of that work has been Earnhardt adjusting to a new crew chief this season in Greg Ives and taking on a little bit different of a role with his team.
"I thought about it in the off-season, what I wanted to do was try to take it upon myself to be a better motivator," Earnhardt said. "I used to just sit there and let Steve motivate me, motivate the team, and I can't always depend or count on that, maybe I need to step up and just have a better attitude.
"The cheerleader that Steve was, was really good, but it also let me off the hook a lot. And now working with Greg, I’ve got to be more accountable for carrying my own emotions and taking care of myself."
Utter: 704- 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter