Racing celebrates a viable Dale Jr.

These are good days for Holly, the unofficial Jack Russell terrier of Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing.

Holly was lolling contently Friday in the shade of her owner’s RV, just in from Horn Lake, Miss., ducking the heat of the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield. She proudly wore the red harness that bore Earnhardt’s autograph. It’s a simple story, really. When Courtney Ray one day finally encountered her favorite driver, she had no program or poster handy, so she hoisted Holly and pleaded, “Please sign my dog.”

This year, after many seasons of suffering Earnhardt’s poor finishes, Holly can parade about without all the Jimmie Johnson poodles and the Jeff Gordon shar peis making fun of her.

For Earnhardt, once headed for the dead end of fame without portfolio, has made an impressive U-turn. He has three victories this year. He is second in the Sprint Cup standings, to Jeff Gordon. With just two races to go before the Sprint Cup playoffs — Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 at AMS, and next week at Richmond — Earnhardt is a legitimate threat to win his first series championship.

There is nothing about that scenario that is bad for racing.

As AMS President Ed Clark noted, “The day after his second win at Pocono this year was one of our best days (in ticket sales) of the entire year.”

It’s not just the canines that seem drawn to Junior. The humans are partial, too. Despite the fact that he had won only one race between 2009-2013, despite a slump that suggested his was the only car in the field that came with a reverse gear, Earnhardt kept winning the title of most popular driver. That streak is now at 11 consecutive years.

“We heard it all, that he was only there because of his last name, that he was a has-been, but we stuck with him,” said Ray, speaking for herself, her husband, her kids and for her dog Holly.

As it was in 1995, the names of Gordon and Earnhardt are 1-2 in the series championship standings. Jeff Gordon is back on top. And this time, joining him, is the son of that earlier vintage Earnhardt. You remember him, Dale Sr., the great “Intimidator.”

Unlike ’95, when Gordon was young and a bitter rival of the senior Earnhardt, he is a partner with this one. Both run under the banner of the powerful Hendrick Motorsports team. And Gordon has borrowed heavily from Junior’s popularity, becoming much more a fan favorite than 20 years ago.

“They stopped booing me as much when (Junior) became my teammate,” Gordon laughed.

You can’t throw an empty Mountain Dew can around the Atlanta Motor Speedway camp sites — and here we stress the word “empty” — without hitting a Dale Jr. fan.

Many fell into the ranks like Jonesboro’s “Porky” Spruill, after Dale Sr. died in a wreck at Daytona in 2001.

“I was a Dale fan forever, and I didn’t root for anybody for a long time,” Spruill said. “But, then, it had to be Junior. I had to root for somebody.”

There were dark times for them all, times when it seemed Earnhardt never would carve out a unique, results-based place for himself in the sport, never truly step out from his father’s long shadow.

But his fans were a stubborn lot, unwilling to let go of prince Earnhardt.

“I don’t think they ever stopped pulling for him,” Clark said. “There was a time when they were more wishful than confident that he was going to run well throughout an entire event.”

This season is quite a reward for the loyalists. It began resoundingly with a victory in the Daytona 500, which Earnhardt and his Hendrick Motorsports Racing team employed like a slingshot for the rest of the season. In 24 starts, he has the three victories and the most top five showings of anyone, 11.

“Racing’s always fun,” said Porky Spruill, “but this just makes it better.”

Junior turns 40 in October, seemingly late in the game to be discovering the stability and maturity that so many around the sport point to as the reason that he’s breezin’.

Some may point to this year’s rules package for the cars that seem to favor Earnhardt’s touch.

Some to the renewed commitment Earnhardt and his crew chief Steve Letarte made to each other this season, knowing that this was Letarte’s last before going off to the comfort of the television booth.

Some to excellence just gradually rubbing off on him after seven years with the Hendrick team.

The human element is definitely in play here, too. There is something to be said for simply being happier while lifting one’s self through the window of one of these howling beasts. Happy at home and finally at peace with a legacy is a winning combination.

Getting along better with those on his team has to pay benefits. “When I was younger, it was more about, how can this help me?” Earnhardt confessed after his last victory at Pocono. “I was not as concerned about helping them and being their friend as I was about them being my friend. I think I’m better at being a friend these days.”

And declaring that, “my personal life’s great,” Earnhardt has found someone with whom he want to share Victory Lane in girlfriend Amy Reimann.

All in all, the analyzing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is such a more pleasant task these days.

“There’s nothing like becoming more experienced and more mature in life,” said Dale Jarrett, a one-time Series champion, television analyst and himself the son of a hall of fame driver. “It’s great if you can have the success as a youngster but not everyone can handle that.”

Now that Earnhardt has come this far, can he boost himself and his sport over one more hurdle, to a Sprint Cup championship?

“No doubt that he can, they are a team that has shown they can perform on every type of race track and that’s what you have to do,” Jarrett said.

But will he?

Holly is panting over the possibility.

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