Earnhardt, fans wonder: Is this finally his year?

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JOLIET, Ill. – It’s a question that is raised every year, typically at two different points in the season – before the season-opening Daytona 500 and the start of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup:

“Will this finally be the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins his first Sprint Cup championship?”

Even Earnhardt asks himself that question.

“I think every driver says that,” he said during Thursday’s Chase Media Day in Chicago. “Every driver wonders if they’re going to win.”

Earnhardt can’t help but lament the potential championships that got away over the years. There was his career-best third-place finish in 2003, his fifth-place showing in 2004, ’06 and ’13.

“We’ve always done pretty good during (the regular season) and always been in the top five or top three in points, and even leading in the points in some of these years,” Earnhardt said. “But we never deliver in the Chase. So when it comes down to the Chase, we just have to deliver.”

No season might be more bittersweet for Earnhardt than ’14. He wanted to win the championship for both himself and crew chief Steve Letarte, who would depart at season’s end and become an analyst for NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage.

Things were going well for Earnhardt in the first round of the Chase, so much so that he led the points after Dover International Speedway through the first three races.

But his season and championship hopes fell apart with the opener of the second round at Kansas.

Earnhardt was leading the race when he blew a right front tire and finished a Chase-worst 39th.

“That pretty much ended our opportunity to move on to the next round,” Earnhardt said.

In just one race, Earnhardt plummeted from first in the standings to 11th. For as positive as he had been after Dover, Kansas was followed by a 20th at Charlotte and a 31st at Talladega, knocking him out of advancing to the third round of the Chase.

In an ironic twist after elimination, he won the first race of the third round at Martinsville, was sixth at Texas and eighth at Phoenix.

After finishing 14th in the season finale at Homestead, Earnhardt ended the season with an eighth-place ranking in the standings.

Now comes this Sunday’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Earnhardt thinks he’s in a good place as part of a four-driver tie for fifth place (with defending series champion Kevin Harvick, 2004 Chase champion Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards).

“We’ve been consistent, averaged better finishes this year,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve kind of been under the radar a little bit because we haven’t won (since Daytona in July).

“I don’t think consistency is enough, but I think we’re in a better position having that consistency than we were in the past.”

Earnhardt believes crew chief Greg Ives, who was the lead engineer on teammate Jimmie Johnson’s first five championships, will be able to pick up where Letarte left off.

“I feel like I’ve got the right guy,” Earnhardt said of Ives, whom he’s nicknamed “Einstein.”

“Our pit crew has struggled this year,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve made some changes and hopefully we’ll have consistency.

“Those guys want to deliver. Hopefully we’ve made the changes we need to make.”

NOTE: Much has been said about the various downforce packages that NASCAR has experimented with this season. Earnhardt said NASCAR officials should go back a bit in time for the optimal package. “I will say my favorite package for the cars is anything from 1978 to 1980,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “The horsepower and downforce that those cars (have) is what I think we should have.”

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