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Saturday, May 03, 2014 - Updated: 4:08 AM

Earnhardt wins driver award

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) -- Through the first four months of 2014, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has landed a new sponsor, another Daytona 500 win and an award selected by the media.

Now, life will be really grand if the popular NASCAR driver can rekindle his old Talladega Superspeedway dominance Sunday in the Sprint Cup Series.

Media and broadcasters selected Earnhardt as the first quarter winner for the Driver of the Year award. He beat Kevin Harvick and IndyCar's Will Power for the honor, and if it seems like getting crowned winner of the first quarter of a race, it's still meaningful to Earnhardt.

"It's good that the media sees the performance because as much as we love to do a lot of things for ourselves we really get a kick out of when the media and our fans see the performance and acknowledge it," he said Friday. "That kind of nod was a great feeling.

"We have worked so hard to be able to be this competitive and we show up every week and we are quick and the car is there. It's been so long -- or I've never really had that to be honest. I can't even imagine '04 was even that good. This is awesome that things are going as good. I couldn't be happier with what is going on in my professional life."

Earnhardt was second at the Talladega race last October after a four-race run when his average finish was 18th.

It was a serious rut for a driver who won four times at Talladega in a three-year span ending in 2004, with two runner-up finishes in between.

Earnhardt said the focal point on his race team until maybe 16 months ago was on just overall improvement. Then they could turn more of their attention to restrictor plate racing for the big tracks at Daytona and Talladega.

It paid off with his second Daytona 500 win in February. Earnhardt is currently fifth in the points standings.

If he does have more confidence coming into 'Dega, Earnhardt said it's about the car not himself.

"When you are driving the car and you get a sense of the car's ability, the car gives you the confidence," Earnhardt said. "Then when you are thinking more positively, you tend to see positive results no matter what you are doing, whether you are driving a car or whatever."

The latest good news for Earnhardt was a three-year sponsorship with Nationwide Insurance, announced on Friday.

Under the agreement with the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, Nationwide will be a primary sponsor for 12 Sprint Cup races in 2015 and 13 each during the two years after that. The company also will be an associate sponsor all three seasons.

Hornish finally back in a car in first race with JGR team

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) -- Finally, after spending the first three months of the season on the sidelines, Sam Hornish Jr. is getting back in a car.

His seven-race Nationwide Series deal with Joe Gibbs Racing starts Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway, where Hornish will drive the No. 54 Toyota typically piloted by Kyle Busch.

That's right: After falling just three points short of winning last year's Nationwide championship, Hornish was rewarded with a seven-race deal. But Hornish isn't complaining. He insisted the JGR offer was the best one for him, and the only one that gave him both a chance to win races and potentially expand his role.

It already has in some respects -- Hornish was the emergency replacement driver for Denny Hamlin at California in March when Hamlin was not medically cleared to race. More important to Hornish was the lure of working for Joe Gibbs after 10 years with Roger Penske.

He was sold on the limited schedule after speaking to Gibbs and team President J.D. Gibbs.

"When you talk about Joe Gibbs Racing after being at Penske for so long, Coach is exactly the kind of person you want to align yourself with when you are used to having those kind of expectations of people that you are around," Hornish said in an interview with The Associated Press.


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