What a difference a year makes for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 10, 2012 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — A nine-position difference in the standings can make a world of difference to a driver’s attitude, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows only too well.

Last year, Earnhardt came to Watkins Glen International 10th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, clinging to the final guaranteed spot in the Chase.

This year, he’s the series leader, and as an all-but-certain Chase qualifier, his approach to Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355 road-course race at the Glen is radically different.

“Coming in here in 10th place, just trying to hang on to the spot in the Chase is really, really tough — especially for someone like myself who is more cold than hot at this place,” Earnhardt said Friday at the Glen. “I’m really happy about being in a position where now we are able to come here. . . .

“We had a good test (at Road Atlanta). We’re feeling positive about our chances of having a good run. We’ll just be able to go out there and try to compete. There’s really no pressure. So that’s a good thing. That’s a good feeling.”

Rather than worry about protecting his place in the Chase, Earnhardt can afford to take risks as he tries to accumulate bonus points for the Chase. Each victory before the Chase is worth three extra points to start the postseason.

“We can forget about (making) the Chase for the moment, concentrate on being fast,” Earnhardt said. “Concentrate on what we’re doing this weekend, next weekend, really look at the particulars and try to find more speed.”

Earnhardt said his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team made impressive gains during last week’s road-course test at Road Atlanta. He’ll need that extra edge to keep his points lead — Earnhardt’s average finish in 12 starts at WGI is 22.2. His best result in the last six years was 15th in 2011.

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