FONTANA, Calif. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. had never filled out an NCAA tournament bracket before this year, even though he’s a hoops fan.
“I didn’t really know if brackets were even that fun to do,” he said. “I hate making the wrong pick, but what are you going to do? There’s a lot of games.”
NASCAR’s most popular driver seems to be getting a whole lot closer to some more important victories during his outstanding start to the year. With two top-five finishes already, Earnhardt is second in the standings through four races, trailing Brad Keselowski by nine points heading into Sunday’s race at Fontana.
“When I hear people talking about the fast start, I just feel like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,” he said. “We’ve had good fortune. We’ve got real lucky. ... We’ve ran well. We’ve had good cars, too. We also had real good fortunes on where we were restarting.”
His teammates realize it’s more than luck that’s keeping Earnhardt up front. He’s already comfortable in NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, which suits his driving skills well.
“Junior Nation, as we all know, is very vocal and large,” Jimmie Johnson said. “Any time he wins, it’s a nice reprieve from the pressure that’s associated with that. It would mean a lot to him on many levels, and for his team. They’ve been getting so much stronger year after year, week after week.”
Earnhardt has made a tradition of strong starts – most notably in 2004, when he won early at Daytona and Atlanta early – only to cool off late.
“It’s a long year, and we’re going to have some bad luck,” he said. “It’s bound to happen. Nobody runs the whole season perfectly, and I’m just trying to get as many points as we can early, so when that bad luck comes, it doesn’t hit us as hard as it hits some of these guys early.”
When Earnhardt isn’t working on another win, he’s checking out his bracket, which he said was 11-5 on Thursday. As a big fantasy football player and a North Carolina basketball fan, he’s even got a strong feeling about the NCAA final.
“I think Indiana will beat Duke,” he said. “I’m not a big Duke fan.”