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Dale Earnhardt Jr. still has time
BROOKLYN, Mich. ( David Newton / ESPN.com ) -- The shouts of "JUN-yahhhhh" that reverberated through the Irish Hills around Michigan International Speedway a year ago have long subsided. So has the madness that surrounded Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ending his 143-race losing streak.
It's almost as though … it didn't happen.
Seldom does NASCAR's most popular driver enter a race weekend under the radar, particularly when it's the only track he has won at in five-and-a-half years -- 176 starts.
But between the tragic death of driver Jason Leffler on Wednesday, the war of words between reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and the owners of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, and pole sitter Carl Edwards almost missing qualifying because he lost the keys to his rental car, Earnhardt has been almost an afterthought.
He has a chance to change that Sunday.
Coming off a third-place finish at Pocono, and remembering his dominant performance here a year ago, Earnhardt has to be considered one of the favorites. He's in that window of opportunity that has become cliché in sports.
"We feel like we are coming through a stretch of races and racetracks, if you take out [the road course at] Sonoma, that we should run pretty well at and have a lot of confidence at," the Hendrick Motorsports driver said.
But last year seemed like a window of opportunity, too. Junior Nation, which wondered whether Earnhardt would win again, started to believe he could win again and again after he led 95 of 200 laps and beat Tony Stewart by five seconds at MIS.
Earnhardt believed, too.
It didn't happen. Earnhardt didn't lead a lap of the five races after that June 17 win. He didn't finish better than fourth the rest of the season.
Outside the 47 laps he led at Phoenix in the second race this season, in fact, he has led only one other lap -- at Kansas on April 21.
So it makes you wonder: Where is Earnhardt in the window of opportunity for his career? Is he in the middle of a run like you often hear about for teams with all the pieces in place to be successful? Like you hear about Johnson even though he already has five titles?
Or is he near the end?
He will be 39 in October, you know.
"I don't really feel that urgency," Earnhardt said. "I feel pretty young still. I feel like I'm in good shape. I feel young in my mind. I feel like I have good energy. I'm not burning out.
"I feel like I'm in the best opportunity of my career. There is a 'seize the moment' kind of feeling because I'm in such good equipment [and] around such good people. I don't feel like there is a clock in the background ticking away that is annoying me or anything like that."
NASCAR is different from most sports in that age isn't as significant. Mark Martin at 54 is driving better than many half his age. Harry Gant tied Davey Allison for the series lead in wins with five in 1990 at the age of 50.
Nine drivers have won championships after their 39th birthday. Earnhardt's dad won four of his seven titles after turning 39, his last at 43.
So there is time for Junior.
"I don't know how you can say when a team is necessarily in that window of opportunity and how long that's going to last," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who will turn 42 in August. "You can't predict that. I wouldn't have predicted Tony Stewart was going to win at Dover [two weeks ago]."
Nobody would have predicted Stewart, 42, would have won his third title two years ago, either, not after such a miserable start to the year.
"There are certain teams that are capable of getting behind or being off and climbing their way back up," Gordon said. "There are certain teams that are just right on the brink of making things really, really good.
"Junior had a very impressive run last week. He was very competitive, and it was great timing for them because this is a track that I know he likes and does well at. So, if this is a window of opportunity for him, it's opening."
It's one of those glass-half-full, glass-half-empty deals. You just don't know, and much of what you think you know depends on where you're standing.
Earnhardt's car owner, Rick Hendrick, believes the No. 88 team is running better coming to MIS than it was a year ago.
"Well, it's probably easier to see the truth from his position on the other side of the fence," Earnhardt said. "It's more difficult to see growth and improvement within the team when you are part of the [on-track] team."
Earnhardt gets philosophical here.
"It's kind of like when you are a kid and you are getting taller," he continued. "You are 10, 11, 12 years old and you are wanting to be 6-foot-3 one day. You can't tell you are getting taller unless you are marking the door jam. Otherwise, you wouldn't notice any change of height.
"That is kind of what it feels like when you are part of the team. You don't really notice when things get a little bit better or things get a little bit worse. Really what you end up doing is you are never really satisfied."
This is where Earnhardt's window appears wide-open. The desire, that feeling of not being satisfied that has been questioned more than once over the years, is stronger than ever. He's as fit as ever.
And there's no denying he's with the best organization.
So the glass appears half-full.
But it seemed on the brink of overflowing after the win here last year and nothing much came from that. That makes the opportunity Earnhardt has Sunday and in the coming weeks seem more significant than ever.
"We want to win more races," Earnhardt said. "We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season. We want that to be the status quo."
No time like the present for that to begin. Michigan is one of Earnhardt's best tracks. Besides winning here in 2008 and 2012, he has 10 top-10s in 27 starts.
His average finish is 14.7, which is better than those of Johnson (15.2), who never has won here, and Keselowski (18.3), who wants to win on his home track more than anywhere.
Earnhardt feels comfortable here.
But how long will that last? If we learned anything from Leffler's death, it's that we never know when opportunity will pass.
Leffler came into NASCAR as a promising driver in the early 2000s, but, after several failed attempts in decent Cup and Nationwide equipment, his career was all but reduced to local dirt tracks in sprint cars.
Earnhardt is a long way from that. His popularity still makes him a hot commodity among sponsors. He has won 19 times in NASCAR's premier series, so he's not without talent.
But Earnhardt has won only four times since winning six times in 2004, and, as far as he has come the past two years, questions remain as to how far he can go.
There are questions about just how big the window of opportunity is.
"When we first started working together, we were trying to figure out how to get a 15th-place combination into the top 10 and we were happy when we did," Earnhardt said. "Now, when we run in the top 10, it's just another weekend and [we think], 'What do we have to do to win?'"
Winning is what Earnhardt needs to do, must do, to prove the window is open enough for him to challenge for a title, to bring back on a more regular basis the shouts of "JUN-yahhh" that were deafening here a year ago.
In case you missed it, it did happen. It was unlike any celebration all season outside of Keselowski's beerfest after clinching the title. NASCAR President Mike Helton ranked it just below the celebration Dale Earnhardt Sr. had after ending an 0-for-19 skid in the Daytona 500.
An Earnhardt win this Sunday wouldn't be quite that big, but it certainly would get Junior back on the radar.