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Paulk: Earnhardt driving back to the front in NASCAR

| Sunday, April 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Let's face it: No Sprint Cup driver is under the microscope as much as Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is expected to win. And he should.

There was a stretch during his tenure with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in which his bewildered team couldn't keep up. As a result, he was haunted by blown engines, flawed fuel strategies, worn tires and bad luck.

Still, Earnhardt shouldered much of the blame. He often pointed an accusing finger at himself as he endured two lengthy victory droughts over the past seven seasons — including four winless seasons.

The expectations were loftier when Earnhardt left DEI for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Even with five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon as teammates, Earnhardt has commanded the spotlight.

For the most part, the sports' perennially most popular driver has come up short.

All his charm and charisma can't overshadow the fact that he has largely underachieved with a team rich in resources. He has won only twice in 183 starts while driving the 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

Finally, it seems as if Earnhardt is about to turn the corner. Already, he has three top-five finishes in five starts to put him atop the points standings for only the third time during the past five seasons.

Remarkably, hardly anyone has noticed.

Earnhardt's early-season performance has been overshadowed by teammates Kasey Kahne and Johnson. Johnson won the Daytona 500, and Kahne captured the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago.

Also, the ongoing feud between Denny Hamlin and Tony Logano drew most everyone's attention the past three weeks.

Earnhardt quietly crept up the leader board while the focus remained mostly on Danica Patrick and an evolving Gen-6 car.

Earnhardt, though, doesn't seem to mind.

“I feel like it gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “We're still not winning races, and I don't expect to get much attention until we can win races.

“I guess the way we've run doesn't really reflect well on our finishes. We've finished well but there are a lot of areas we can improve, and we get to focus on that sort of being out of the scope and out of the spotlight. We can pay more attention to how do we get better as a team.

“If we go out and win some races, we'll get credit where credit is due,” he added. “We've gotten lucky, we've had good cars.

However, no one else in the Sprint Cup garage faces the same pressures that have dogged Earnhardt since he made his Cup debut in 1999.

“I wouldn't expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully we can win some races, though, and change that.”

Earnhardt is looking to change things at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. While he has often struggled at Martinsville, this short track seemingly fits into his wheelhouse.

“I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything,” he recalled. “I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars, just about everything.

“It was real frustrating because I had thought of myself as a short-track driver, and I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast, and this should be where I excel the most. Short-track racing can really allow you to get carried away with yourself.”

At times, Earnhardt could have been accused of getting wrapped up into the hype and the expectations. Now, it seems he has morphed into a mature, patient driver who understands what is required to win a Cup championship.

Eventually, he will. And he should.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk every Friday at 9 to 10 a.m. on TribLive Radio.

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