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Earnhardt's points lead breaks new ground

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Being No. 1 is nothing new for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But becoming the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader, which he accomplished with a second-place finish on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, broke new ground for the driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS.

It’s the first time the 10-time Most Popular Driver has led the standings in consecutive seasons. Earnhardt most recently sat atop the driver standings after the August 2012 race at Pocono Raceway. He also ranked No. 1 in points in 2004.

Retaining the ranking, qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and winning an elusive championship definitely are in Earnhardt’s sights.

Sunday’s finish kept a magical season rolling. He’s now finished second twice, at Auto Club and behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt is the only competitor to have finished among the top 10 in each of this season’s five races.

That Earnhardt overcame several problems – notably a 22-second pit stop – and still contended for the victory is further proof that his Steve Letarte-led No. 88 Chevrolet team is solid during the long haul.

“Yeah, we had a little problem on pit road on one of our stops and lost a lot of positions,” said Earnhardt in his post-race interviews. “But we’ve always stuck together and patted each other on the back. We knew we were going to get another chance to redeem ourselves on pit road.”

A late caution flag and the chance to mount fresh tires gave Earnhardt the chance to close strong – something he’s not always been able to do.

“(That was) something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” he said.  “(We’re) just riding the wave; just real happy with how things are going for our team.”

Earnhardt’s best championship finish, third, came in 2003. He has two more top five finishes and a top-10 championship result – seventh in 2011 – his best since joining Hendrick Motorsports.

Last season might have been “the one” until a concussion forced Earnhardt to sit out Chase races at Charlotte and Kansas. Since his return at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Earnhardt has finished seven of nine races among the top 10 and completed all but two laps.

Next week’s event at Martinsville will mark Earnhardt’s 475th NASCAR Sprint Cup start and his 600th overall in NASCAR competition. Although he’s never won at the 0.525-mile track, Earnhardt has finished in the top five on 10 occasions, including third in last year’s spring race. He has finished second on two occasions, both times in Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.

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