Earnhardt just wants to celebrate


Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s struggles this season have been well documented. For the first time since his rookie season, he admitted to never knowing when he showed up to the track whether he was going to have a shot at winning or was just there to ride around in circles. In fact, he put it plainly Sunday night:

"I was worried I was going to go winless this year," he said.

Worry no more. Junior didn't have the best car Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, but he had the best strategy and the most hunger to get out front and stay out front and continue a rush of momentum, which he and his crew hope will lift him back among the top 10 and into championship contention.

"We needed to come to Chicago and drive a stake in the ground and say, 'Hey guys, we're back,'" said Junior's crew chief, Steve Hmiel. "This whole company has worked very hard to prove that it's a company that works together."

The whole company took a beating over the early months when, after swapping crews and cars in the offseason, both drivers came out of the gates a little slowly. Even as Junior's teammate Michael Waltrip began to improve, people questioned whether Dale Earnhardt Inc. had made the right decision to mess with Junior's team -- a squad that had become familiar contenders and one competitors knew to look out for every weekend.

DEI didn't shy away from admitting some mistakes. Seeing that there was a chemistry issue between Junior and crew chief Pete Rondeau, the team replaced Rondeau with Hmiel and crossed its fingers. Meanwhile, Junior preached patience and hard work -- two things he was not known for early in his career.

"Everybody had to stay focused and just work hard," Junior said. "It wasn't easy. It was a lot of hard work."

The work is paying off.

With the victory in Chicago coming on the heels of a third-place finish in Daytona, Junior has climbed from 18th in the standings to 13th and is within 100 points of the Chase (Earnhardt is just 91 from being within 400 of leader Jimmie Johnson).

What's more, the driver who has remained a force at the superspeedways now knows he can compete on the 1.5-milers. Even though his was not the fastest car on the track at the end, he knew he had a top-five car, and that's enough to make the playoffs. Especially with Junior in the driver's seat.

"To be quite honest, our car was not as good as Junior made it look," Hmiel said. "Junior drove the wheels off it. I could see how high his elbows were. He was in there wheeling the heck out of his car."

But on Sunday, Junior wasn't preoccupied with championship talk. Part of him was too callous from the struggles of the year to hastily announce a return to prominence. Another part of him was just too darn happy with the win to think about anything but celebrating.

"It's been a long time coming, man," Junior said. "It's a lot of emotion, more than I can handle right now. For these guys, all the darts they've had thrown at them this year, it's just awesome."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.