In three weeks' time we've gone from hype ... to hope ... to coming down to Earth – and finding Dale Earnhardt Jr. waiting for us, atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.
Earnhardt leads the series points for the third consecutive week. Never before has Earnhardt led the series points for three consecutive weeks. A Daytona 500 victory followed by runner-up efforts at Phoenix and Las Vegas have brought us to this milestone marker.
It appears we have a contender to consider.
"This is a good start for sure," said Earnhardt, whose longest stretch atop the points was seven consecutive weeks in the middle of the 2004 season. "The confidence is up ... we've got a great opportunity this year to be this competitive every week."
Which brings us to this week – Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the half-mile cereal-bowl of an oval where Earnhardt has run consistently, if not spectacularly. He has 28 starts, with top-10 finishes in half of those; toss in an average finish of 11.5 and one victory, in the track's 2004 summertime night race. Clearly, a comfort level exists for Earnhardt at Bristol.
But right now, there's a comfort level everywhere, thanks to the season-opening Daytona 500 win that virtually assured Earnhardt of a berth in the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Virtual assurance led to high-speed gambling at Las Vegas. With "points racing" a thing of the past, replaced by the need to win races, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte rolled the full mileage dice but came up just short, running out of fuel in the last two miles and finishing second behind Brad Keselowski.
"It hurts to lose like that," Earnhardt said at Las Vegas. "But our time will come."
Meanwhile, the present isn't a bad place to be.