After low-key party, Junior focused on Sonoma

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Turns out the victory party for Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t much of a party at all.

Earnhardt snapped a 143-race winless streak at Michigan International Speedway, then celebrated at home in North Carolina with friends and family.

“It was good, we went home and some of the family and my friends were there, and we just stood around and talked about the win,” Earnhardt told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We played some music, it was a pretty good time.”

It was hardly the wild party people expected from NASCAR’s most popular driver, who was unaware of reports the nightclub he owns in downtown Charlotte gave away free drinks for an hour after Sunday night’s win.

“That’s cool,” he said, laughing.

Next up for Earnhardt was his first celebration at Hendrick Motorsports since the organization began marking wins with the ringing of a victory bell throughout the shop. Earnhardt has been with Hendrick since 2008, when he won his only other race with the team _ at Michigan four years to the day of Sunday’s victory. He said he’s never been present when any of his teammates rang the bell.

Once that’s over, it will be full focus on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway, where Earnhardt has always struggled. In 12 career starts, his average finish is 22.2 and he’s led just nine laps on the winding road course. His career best finish is 11th, done three times.

He’s set modest goals for this weekend with crew chief Steve Letarte, and is anxious to get on with his summer with return trips to Daytona, Pocono and Michigan looming ahead.

“I’ve kind of got to reel it in a little bit because of Sonoma, I ain’t never had a top 10 there,” he said. “I told Steve, `Let’s try to go get a top-10, if that’s first place or ninth place or whatever, let’s just concentrate on going there to get a personal best. And then I think we can move on from that, whatever that result may be.”

But, there’s a part of Earnhardt who isn’t ready to write off a good day at Sonoma just yet.

Statistically, the start of his season is one of his best ever in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s the only driver to complete every lap, and leads the series with 12 top-10s through 15 races.

“There are stats I’m not used to bragging about,” he said. “I have to pinch myself just about after race.”

His consistency, coupled with the dominating win at Michigan, now has him mentioned as a serious threat to win the Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt has never won a Cup title, and hasn’t challenged for one since his six-win season in 2004, which he considers the strongest year of his career.

He laughed Tuesday at the sudden buzz over his title chances, which have been validated since Sunday by everyone from current points leader Matt Kenseth to NASCAR president Mike Helton. Earnhardt believes he’ll have his hands full with defending champion Tony Stewart, teammate Jimmie Johnson, and Roush Fenway Racing drivers Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

“I think everybody was just kind of drunk with excitement after the race,” he said. “Some of my buddies that I race against, Matt and Mr. Helton, everybody was just excited about the end of the race. But I do think we can put our name in the hat. I don’t think we are the top team, you’ve got to look at probably Tony, Jimmie, and Biffle and Matt.

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