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Dale Earnhardt Jr. loves being NASCAR points leader

By Jim Utter, McClatchy Newspapers –

LONG POND, Pa. — — With the way NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup works, simply being the series points leader before the final 10 races provides little actual benefit.

Bonus points for wins is what separates drivers when the Chase begins.

Try telling that to Dale Earnhardt Jr., however.

Or his fans, including the students and teachers at Shepherd Elementary School in Mooresville, N.C.

Earnhardt’s fourth-place finish combined with Matt Kenseth’s wreck last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway catapulted Earnhardt in the series points lead for the first time since late in the 2004 season.

By Monday of this week, the sign outside of Shepherd Elementary School had a new message:

“Congrats to NASCAR’s New Sprint Point Leader Dale Jr. Go 88.”

Shepherd has been the beneficiary of much assistance in recent years from NASCAR’s most popular driver and his charitable foundation.

“It meant a lot to me that they would do something like that, really the fact that anybody would go out of their way to acknowledge what we did,” Earnhardt said Friday at Pocono Raceway.

“My sister texted me a picture of that acknowledgment that they made. It’s a great feeling.”

Qualifying for Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 is 10:40 a.m. Saturday.

Earnhardt said his relationship with the school, located near Earnhardt’s home, started from his friendship with a student at the school.

“A friend of mine was playing football at that school, just little eight-year-old and 10-year-old kids. They didn’t have any helmets or uniforms, so that’s how I started helping the school,” Earnhardt said.

“We’ve invested more in the school and supported the school more since then. I like to do things close to home and I like to do things that I can visually see myself.”

With only one victory this season, Earnhardt would be seeded near the bottom of the 12-driver field when the Chase begins.

Nonetheless, he believes the points lead still signals some significant positives for himself and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.

“It’s been a long time since I was in the points lead. It’s been forever. I can’t even recall when the last time we were in the conversation about the championship.

“These things are really validating the effort and the work we’ve done. We’ve worked really hard.”

With the stronger, more consistent performance this season has also come some vindication for Earnhardt, at least in terms of those who have said his best days in NASCAR were behind him.

“It didn’t really bother me. I was worried about my own situation more than anything probably,” he said. “But I do feel vindicated to the people that considered I wouldn’t ever be competitive again.

“Aside from winning a few more races I don’t know how much more of a statement I could have made then what we have made this year.

“That’s not quite as important to me as just trying to make the best of this year with the final result being more wins and a championship.”

In the last several seasons while he was trying to end his career-worst winless streak, Earnhardt experienced some of the most difficult days of his NASCAR career.

The difference this season, he said, was putting in the hard work necessary each week but also being able to see gains in speed and performance.

“I’ve worked my tail off for most of my career with little gains and at time no gains,” he said. “This year it’s been awesome to go to a race track and come away really happy with what happened.

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