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Dale Jr. having fun as he goes after title

Sep 11, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson take a selfie photo during media day for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at The Murphy Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports ** Usable by BS, CT, DP, FL, HC, MC, OS, HOY, CGT and CCT **
Sep 11, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson take a selfie photo during media day for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at The Murphy Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports ** Usable by BS, CT, DP, FL, HC, MC, OS, HOY, CGT and CCT ** (Jasen Vinlove, USA Today Sports)

A NASCAR career on the upswing has Dale Earnhardt Jr. sounding content as he nears his 40th birthday.

"I feel physically and mentally 10 years younger than that," Earnhardt said in the run up to Sunday's Chase for the Sprint Cup opening race at Chicagoland Speedway.

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"I still enjoy what I do and had the best time driving race cars this year," he said. "(That) surprised me because I hadn't been having a good time several years ago and I didn't know if that was ever going to change."

Based on Friday practice laps, Earnhardt will have a respectable start in the seventh row in Sunday's 43-entry MyAFibStory.com 400.

He missed a chance for a better spot when rain canceled official qualifying runs.

Still, Earnhardt is in the midst of his best run in several seasons. He essentially clinched one of 16 Chase for the Sprint Cup berths by winning the year's first race — the Daytona 500 — and then claimed two more series victories through the next 25.

Three trips to the winner's circle this year are the most for him since he made six in 2004. Earnhardt also has been consistently near the top with 11 top five finishes and 16 among the top 10 in 26 Sprint Cup races to date.

He enters Sunday's race behind series leader Brad Keselowski and tied for second with Jeff Gordon.

"This is a big deal … and I really hope we can make our fans proud, make all our supporters proud of the job we do," he said. "There's a lot of pressure. A lot of people are really relying on us and depending on us and we want to be able to deliver."

Earnhardt opens the Chase on a track where he has had some success. He was a Chicagoland champ in 2005 and has three career top five finishes in 13 races in NASCAR's top series races run here. In 2013, engine trouble knocked him out after 224 laps.

"We didn't have a good run at Chicago," he said. "But the rest of the Chase we had a great little string of finishes."

Earnhardt drives the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, the NASCAR powerhouse that includes Gordon, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne among its stable of drivers.

He's is the latest generation of racing royalty, part of a family that includes grandfather Ralph Earnhardt, a 1956 NASCAR Sportsman champion and part of the inaugural 2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.

His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., is one of the sport's legends with seven NASCAR titles and 76 victories in NASCAR's top championship series before his death in a wreck at age 49 in 2001.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up the racing mantle at age 17. By the time he turned 24 he was driving in NASCAR and has compiled a run of 531 races. In that span he has claimed 22 victories and 126 finishes among the top five along with 13 pole positions.

While he has qualified for the Chase seven times, and in each of the last four years, a title in NASCAR's top series remains elusive.

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But he long has been a champion among fans, awarded the circuit's Most Popular Driver award yearly since 2003.

Earnhardt turns 40 on Oct. 10, the day before the 10-race Chase for the Cup series hits the midpoint at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"You don't have much of a choice with your age when you hit these milestones," he said. "[But] I feel really fortunate. I feel lucky to still be enjoying what I do and the passion is still there.

"I'm having as much fun as I've ever had."

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