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Earnhardt quietly moves to top of standings

April 2nd, 2013 7:38 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings at California last week, although it seems few are talking about it.
The fallout from Fontana was about the fight between Tony Stewart and Joey Logano, and the hard crash which sidelined Denny Hamlin for five races.
In addition, Kyle Busch made a three-wide pass on the outside to win the race to snap a 31-race streak.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact Earnhardt finished second and passed defending series champion Brad Keselowski for the points lead. Earnhardt has finished in the top seven of all five races this season, and although it’s early, he looks like a serious contender to win this season’s championship.
There has been a big change in attitude for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver since being paired with crew chief Steve Letarte. Previously known for a laissez-faire approach, Earnhardt has shown up ready to work and it has yielded some nice results.
Earnhardt finished seventh in the 2011 point standings and his victory at Michigan last season was his first in four years. Five races later, he took over the points lead at Indianapolis and held it for two weeks. It was his first time leading the points since 2004.
Although Earnhardt faded in the Chase, missing two races after getting injured in a wreck at Talladega, last season showed he was serious about racing and racing for a championship.
At 38, Earnhardt realizes there aren’t many opportunities left to compete for championships. He appears prepared for the moment, in the best shape of his career, both mentally and physcially.
In addition, the Hendrick Motorsports organization is at the top of its game. Dating back to the end of last season, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne all have wins over the last six Sprint Cup Series races.
With Earnhardt’s team operating out of the same shop as five-time champion Johnson, the No. 88 and No. 48 teams are working closely to figure out NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race car.
Although it’s been a while, you can’t discount the fact that Earnhardt, a winner of 19 Sprint Cup races, won back-to-back Nationwide Series titles. There’s something to be said about having that experience of racing for championship.
Currently his lead is 12 points over Keselowski with Johnson 16 points behind in third. The gap is 35 points back to Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
It’s a pretty good margin, equivalent to a 60-point lead under the old points system. With Martinsville, one of Earnhardt’s better tracks coming up on Sunday, there’s no reason to believe he’s about to give up the points lead anytime soon.
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Anthony Anders of Easley, S.C. won last Friday night’s NASCAR Late Model Stock feature at Kingsport Speedway in a race so wild that it prompted promoter Robert Pressley to ban double-file restarts this week.
Smyrna driver Daniel Pope II was ahead of pole sitter Zeke Shell of Johnson City when the caution came out on lap 50.
Chaos ensued on multiple restarts which followed.
They included Adam Long getting into the back of Pope, and Shell also falling to the back of the field with a cut tire.
Nearly after an hour of the race being stuck on laps 50 and 51, law enforcement officials were called to the pits to help cool tempers of drivers and their crews.
Two laps later, however, Derrick Lancaster in the No. 25 Chevrolet ran into the side of Long’s No. 3 Chevrolet during a caution after the two got into it while racing for position.
Finally, things cooled down enough to finish the race, and Anders in the No. 36 Ford held off Pope in the No. 16 Chevrolet for the win.
Ryan Stiltner of Grundy, Va. finished third, followed by Shell and Kres VanDyke of Claypool Hill, Va.
Others in the run-down included Joey Trent of Gray, who finished 12th, and Tyler Goodwin, a senior at Daniel Boone, who finished 16th.
Nick Cole in the No. 63 Camaro held off Rob Austin for the win in the Street Stock division. Jason Ketron of Kingsport scored his second Pure 4 win of the season, beating his father John to finish line.
Rocky Yates of Abingdon, Va., made a late-race pass of Joshua Gobble to win the 20-lap Mod 4 feature and Kingsport’s Billy Byington captured his first Rookie Pure 4 victory.
Another night of NASCAR Whelen All-American Series racing is scheduled for Kingsport this Friday night.
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Volunteer Speedway hosts the “Second Annual Walter Ball Memorial Night” this Saturday as the track honors one of East Tennessee’s true racing legends.
The Fastrak Racing Series-sanctioned Pro (Crate) Late Models will headline the racing program with a $2,000-to-win main event, along with Modified Hobby, Open Wheel Modified and Mini Stock action.
Walter Ball of Johnson City began his racing career in the mid-1950s, and by the time he hung his helmet up for the final time following the 1978 racing season, he had over 400 feature wins. In addition, he captured track championships at the old Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City, Appalachian Speedway in Kingsport and Davy Crockett Raceway in Rogersville.
His son Dale is a five-time champion at Volunteer Speedway and the three-time defending champion in the Pro Late Model division.

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