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Star-Telegram.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. builds Sprint Cup momentum as first half closes

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 04, 2012

By Carlos Mendez

cmendez@star-telegram.com

Halfway through the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can say he is a winner.

Can he say it when the second half is over?

That is one of the questions stock car fans will see answered when the back half of the schedule begins. The Sprint Cup series hits its halfway point Saturday with the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the 18th of 36 races.

Will Matt Kenseth win a championship in a lame-duck season?

Is Jimmie Johnson on the way to championship No. 6?

What does the winningest driver of the season, Brad Keselowski, have in store for the second half?

Is somebody going to pull a Tony Stewart?

Last year, the answers came late. Stewart won five of the last 10 races en route to his third championship, and the title wasn't decided until the last lap of the last race.

So even though Stewart and big names such as Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton are down in the point standings, a title run is not out of reach for any of them.

"[We're] a team that's capable of winning a championship," Denny Hamlin said last week after a third-place finish at Kentucky that bumped him from eighth to fifth in the standings. "That's all I can ask for. So it's up to us to get that done from here on out."

But no name will get more attention in the second half than Junior.

He has a win, which he has not been able to say in the previous three seasons.

He is second in the point standings. He is heading to one of his favorite tracks -- Daytona. And he is matched up with a veteran crew chief, Steve Letarte, who seems to have found a way to get the most out of his 37-year-old driver.

"I was going to do everything in my power to give him what he needed to get the job done, because I knew it was inside those walls," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "What we were missing was a coach and a quarterback. We finally got the best coach and quarterback with him, then things started to happen."

The top name in NASCAR, however, is still Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion is driving like a five-time champion. He is poised for the second half. He knows the road map to a title.

"Where I am at, [in third], with a couple wins, we feel we have our bases covered, and we can gamble on things and try to stretch fuel mileage, try two tires, try some stuff at the end of the races that lean more toward offense instead of defending something," Johnson said. "Happy to be where we're at, and hopefully, it leads to a few more wins."

The answers start coming this weekend.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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