Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 7, 2012, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Updated: August 31, 2012 6:16AM
INDIANAPOLIS — Sometimes when you don’t win, you still win.
At least that’s how Dale Earnhardt Jr. should think after finishing fourth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s not that NASCAR’s ultimate fan favorite should settle for a top-five at a track in which he had never finished that high — his previous best at IMS was sixth in 2006. But after finally ending a 143-race winless streak last month, putting himself in contention to get another victory is still the main goal every week.
But at the end of Sunday’s 160 laps, Junior actually did have a victory — sort of.
Thanks to points leader Matt Kenseth getting in an accident with Joey Logano on lap 134, Earnhardt Jr. moves into the points lead with six races left before the Chase.
What does it mean overall? Not much since the leader going into the Chase gets no advantage. In the new playoff format, winning gets you bonus points headed into the final 10 races when the points reset.
But still, Junior Nation has another reason to thump its chest since it’s the first time their driver has been first in the points since Sept. 19, 2004, the first year of the Chase.
“If you run in the top five or top 10 long enough, you will get points,” Junior said, almost being nonchalant about ending another streak. “But we would like to win some races. I know our fans would like us to win some more races.”
Duh! Of course they would. Despite another low attendance at the Brickyard — it was officially listed at 125,000, which is half of the capacity — if Junior had taken the lead at any point on Sunday, the roar would have been heard back in Michigan where he won in June.
Junior Nation will just have to settle for consistency that the 88 car — or when he was driving the No. 8 — hasn’t seen in some time.
“I’m proud of (the consistency) because it says a lot about our body of work,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “(But) we need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I don’t know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it.”
Probably not. That’s why the Chase was started in 2004. The year before, Kenseth won the championship with only one victory all season.
That’s not what fans want and that’s why the change to a playoff was ultimately a good decision.
And what really could be a boost for NASCAR from a financial aspect is if the title comes down to Junior and his teammate Jimmie Johnson, who dominated Sunday’s race to win a fourth Brickyard 400 crown.
Right now, the consensus is that those two Hendrick teammates are the favorites — Johnson for his ability to put forth efforts like Sunday’s and his three victories this season, and Junior because of that consistency he’s showed this year.
But they’re not just teammates. Their cars are part of the same shop, while the other two Hendrick drivers, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, are in a different shop.
“I didn’t know (Earnhardt Jr. took the points lead),” Johnson said after the race. “I’m so happy for Junior. The energy and excitement in our race shop right now and the connection we have, it’s working well.
“What it does specifically for our company far exceeds any type of competitive spirit that exists.”
And it could actually help from a technical standpoint since, as Johnson put it, they “go to the race track with the same equipment.” So if it’s working for one, it will likely work for the other. If it’s not working, you just ask the other team for help.
It’s not the first time teammates could fight for a title. In fact, team owner Rick Hendrick recalled it happening with his own company in 1996 when Terry Labonte won a battle with Gordon down the stretch.
“A lot of organizations, it tears them down to have that situation,” Hendrick said. “I think it makes us stronger. By having those two cars where they are in the points will gives us a better shot to win a title.”
Hendrick also has Kahne in the points race — the first-year member of the team sits in the first of two wildcard spots with two victories this season — while Gordon sits in 15th.
It just cements the team’s standing as the best in NASCAR, period. It’s made fans of drivers on other teams angry, accusing Johnson of cheating during his string of five straight championships that ended last year.
In fact, crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended the first six races of this season and Johnson docked 25 points before the season began as the result of what NASCAR considered illegal C-posts — pillars that come down from the roof to the quarter panel — to gain an advantage.
But Johnson has come back from starting with minus-25 points to sit fourth in the point, and he’s looking up at Junior. It could be a very interesting second half of the season.