Dale Jr. grinning with optimism this season

FONTANA, Calif. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back.

Not in Victory Lane, but NASCAR's most popular driver certainly has found the confidence that has been absent during recent seasons.

While the 2011 Sprint Cup season is just four races old, even team owner Rick Hendrick feels a sense of relief an offseason change in crew chiefs among three of his teams already is paying dividends.

"Every driver I've worked with at some point in their career has a problem with confidence. You have to feel like you have the right car behind you and team behind you to be successful," Hendrick said Saturday.

"The parts and pieces are the same. In large part, the people are the same. But when a driver feels all the things are in place to win, you're halfway there."

Earnhardt's last Cup victory came June 15, 2008, and the past two seasons were the worst of his career. He missed the Chase both seasons and didn't finish better than 21st in points. During that 72-race span, Earnhardt led a grand total of 331 laps .

That's not a formula for winning races, let alone competing for championships.

But entering today's Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, there has been a noticeable change in Earnhardt's performance and demeanor this season.

He has two top-10 finishes (he had eight last season). Since getting caught up in a wreck during the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt hasn't finished worse than 11th.

Four races does not a season make, but the driver is beginning to believe again that anything is possible.

Earnhardt is ninth in points and asked this weekend whether he felt his was a top-10 team week-in and week-out, he didn't shy away from an answer.

"Yeah, I do. We're capable of that. We're good enough for that," he said. "You should come to the race track and expect to run around the guys that are in that position.

"I feel like we're legitimate, yes sir."

And nothing makes Hendrick happier.

"I honestly believe there is no better combination working in the garage right now than Dale and" crew chief Steve Letarte, Hendrick said.

"Stevie went the extra mile to get ready for this season and working with Dale, and right now I don't know if there is another driver who is working harder with their team than Dale.

"You make decisions and do the work to expect success but nothing is for certain. I do think, though, we're over the hump."

Certainly, Earnhardt's success can only help NASCAR. His legions of fans have been anxiously awaiting big things since he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 .

There have been flashes of potential but not the kind of consistent success Earnhardt enjoyed early in his Cup career. He is now with his third crew chief as Hendrick has tried to find the driver a winning combination.

"We just have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it's easy for us to have a conversation," Earnhardt said of Letarte.

"I've been spending a ton of time around the hauler all day long during each day on Friday and Saturday and when you're sitting there you just never know when that idea or that thought is going to come into your head or come into his head about what might really be able to help the car.

"And if you just sit around long enough, eventually it's going to pop up, and I want to be there for that conversation."

There is still a long season ahead. There will be bumps in the road.

How Earnhardt and Letarte deal with the bad days that will come could well play a big role in defining their season .

"That's the hard part," Hendrick said. "Dale and Stevie believe in each other and you can't overstate how important that is.

"This is a long haul and we're taking one day at a time. To be honest, though, I'm just tickled to death at how the year has started."

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