Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking for more Michigan mojo

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a bit of an accidental tourist during the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

I mean that in good way. Earnhardt is a solid fourth in points and has four Top 5s, but this sport — just like chess, cricket and curling — is all about winning.

And Junior has not won a Cup race since Michigan last year.

Guess which track is next on the schedule?

"We run pretty good there, so hoping to have a good summer," Earnhardt said after his third-place finish at Pocono — his first Top 5 finish since March.

While English teachers may cringe at the grammatical hiccups, you get the message.

It is all about momentum, and Earnhardt feels it after his solid run at Pocono.

"We were counting on sort of rebounding," Earnhardt said. "We haven't had a good last couple of months, cars haven't been that fast, had some issues here and there. But it's good to get a good solid full race in and finish where I felt like the car was capable of running, and we got a couple other tracks coming up. Hopefully we can do this throughout the summer and get ourselves in the Chase pretty comfortably."

The NASCAR nation certainly hopes so.

For all of the success of drivers such as Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt remains NASCAR's Favorite Son. He is the pure-blood of a NASCAR icon, a heavy piece of baggage since the death of his father on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

At times, Earnhardt has seemed disinterested in his profession, chugging along and not getting terribly bothered by the great expectations. Other times, most notably in the days and months following the death of his father, Earnhardt wanted to run away and do something else.

But he has persevered. He has finished seventh and 12th in points the last two seasons, and would have finished higher in 2012 if he hadn't missed two races with concussion complications.

But fans want more. They always do.

To the point, fans have selected Earnhardt as the most popular driver in the sport for the last decade.

"I don't know if there's a way to explain it or understand," he said at the start of the season. "It's kind of overwhelming. I don't know that I really realize exactly what that means until it's way, way down the road. I'll look back on it finally, tell my grandkids, nephews, nieces about it, and see if they really dig it or not.

"It's pretty cool just to win it the first time. That really, you know, took me aback, surprised me when that happened. To keep going back and keep winning it, it just means we got a lot of loyal fans and got a great fan base that's been supportive through these years, and they're still sticking behind us and excited about what we're doing."

The excitement builds as Junior heads to Michigan, where he won in last June and then finished fourth in the August race.

For the NASCAR Nation, nothing would be sweeter than Junior's first win of the season.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

Changes for Labonte

Growing old stinks — perhaps more when you are an athlete, where every youthful day is a precious commodity.

Age seems to be catching up to Bobby Labonte, who at 49 will give way to AJ Allmendinger in the No. 47 Toyota at Michigan this weekend. The Dinger is also set to start a few more races.

"But Bobby is still our guy," Brad Daugherty, a co-owner of JTG/Daugherty Racing, told ESPN last weekend.

"We have five unsponsored races, but we may get sponsorship on three of those, so we'll see. We plan to pick three other races for AJ to run."

Still, it's been a rough ride for Labonte this season. After finishing 15th at Daytona to start the season, Labonte has finished no higher in a Cup points race than 19th at Richmond, 20th at Talladega and 21st at Dover. His average finish is 25.9.

Since winning a Cup title in 2000, Labonte has finished 21st or lower in the standings since 2008.

The good news for Labonte is that he will drive for Phoenix Racing at Michigan, upping his streak of consecutive starts to 703, third longest in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.

Daytona driver makes cut

Props go to Ben Kennedy — a native of NASCAR's hometown of Daytona Beach — who recently was selected to be part of the 2013 NASCAR Next class.

NASCAR Next is an evolution of the Next9 initiative that began in 2011. It identifies NASCAR's rising stars and tries to bolster recognition by participating in several media and promotional activities throughout the next 12 months.

Kennedy, 21, has two NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victories in five starts this season,and will make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.

"This program has made great strides in a short time," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR vice president/industry services. "The evolution of NASCAR Next builds on that success with the influx of young, talented drivers continuing throughout all of NASCAR's racing series. This program provides a platform to help foster their growth within our sport, and introduce these young and talented drivers to NASCAR fans who will likely be hearing more about them in years to come."

Newman's exciting day off

Ryan Newman isn't much for basking in the spotlight of celebrity. Here's how he described his day during a teleconference on Tuesday:

"I woke up this morning, fed the dogs and got stuff ready for my babies to get up and went down and threw buzz bait for a few cast, caught three fish in five casts. And I enjoy my hobby farm; I enjoy the outdoors. I enjoy that — I guess more the independent, personal side of it for myself — than actually going and hanging out with guys who are trying to get away from guys like me."

 

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