Earnhardt finally a contender while Biffle toils under radar

There's something different about Junior in '14

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BROOKLYN, Mich. (NASCAR) -- Consider this:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. … finally, a contender.

Ok, granted, he has made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before, with some fine finishes (third once, fifth three times) in the final series championship standings. But there's something different about this year, right? Considered for so long by so many as a champion-in-waiting, Earnhardt (No. 88 National Guard/Superman Chevrolet) looks to be assuming the aura of a champion-on-deck.

What a road he has traveled to this spot - two victories in a season for the first time since 2004 and all but assured of making the newly expanded Chase field because of those wins. After years of spotlighted scrutiny and periodic victory droughts that left his legion of fans disappointed, Earnhardt may be ready to deliver a long-awaited, long-expected title in NASCAR's premier series - or at the very least, come awfully close to doing so.

Earnhardt's victory at Pocono Raceway this past Sunday sparked a litany of statistics that, collectively, seem hard to believe: First multi-win season in a decade; same number of wins as the previous seven seasons combined; first win at Pocono in 29 starts.

More important than any of those is this: Now with two victories, Earnhardt is guaranteed to be among the top 16 race winners - the most difficult criteria to meet in landing a spot in the Chase. As long as he finishes in the top 30 in driver points after race No. 26 and attempts to qualify for every race, he's locked into NASCAR's "playoffs."

Years ago, race victories, Chase berths and a series championship or three all were predicted to come routinely to a young man with two NASCAR Nationwide Series championships and the consummate NASCAR family heritage, the heir apparent to his late father, seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

That once-bright future, which once was considered derailed by critics - of which there were many, despite Earnhardt's immense popularity overall - seemingly was only being delayed.

That future is now. Dale Jr. could be approaching a "Sr." moment

"It's elusive, man," Earnhardt said at Pocono, regarding Sprint Cup success. "I don't worry about [being criticized] as much anymore. I'm turning 40 this year, and the 'over-rated' talk is way behind me. That used to bother me when I was younger, but when you get old you don't really care anymore about those kind of things. … I feel like I'm such a lucky guy to have this second opportunity almost to be competitive again, and so I don't really worry about the detractors."

In contrast to Earnhardt's every move being under weekly examination, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Military Salute Ford) has largely toiled under the radar during his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. Even though he advanced to the top rung after winning championships in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, there was never an automatic expectation of Biffle completing an unprecedented sweep.

Thing is, also in contrast to Earnhardt, Biffle actually has come very close to winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, finishing as the series' runner-up (tied with Carl Edwards) in 2005, only 35 points behind champion Tony Stewart.

In recent seasons, though, Biffle's own career momentum has slowed slightly, with a total of only three victories form 2011-13 and none so far this season.

Sunday's race at Michigan could be a breakthrough opportunity for the Roush Fenway driver. Roush's headquarters are located near Michigan International Speedway, in Livonia, Mich. So, it's fitting that Roush Fenway Racing has more wins at MIS (13) than any other team in NASCAR history - and four of those have been by Biffle, including two of the last three MIS races.

A win at Michigan, his most prolific track, would virtually lock Biffle into the 2014 Chase, provided he also meets the criteria outlined above.

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