It’s a shame when it is news that NASCAR’s most popular driver led a lap in a race, but such is the state of Dale Earnhardt Jr., not to mention NASCAR’s hard luck, during the 2009 season. Since April 26, when he finished second at Talladega, Earnhardt has not finished higher than 12th and has not led a lap. He led six laps on Sunday at the Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway and looked like a contender for the win.

Earnhardt was able to challenge up front because of the decision to pit with 42 laps left in the race. Although he came out 17th after the stop, he had the freedom to charge all the way to third place while the rest of the field saved fuel.

That’s Racin’s Rick Bonnell reports that Earnhardt seemed calmer and wiser after the race. Said Earnhardt, "I’m my own worst enemy… I’ve been trying to work really hard to be the same person at the end of the race that I am at the start of the race, mentally." Bonnell writes, "Serene has seldom been Earnhardt’s way. He’s known to be a hot head when things go wrong, publicly venting frustration. If his words Sunday counted for anything, he’s beginning to understand how counter-productive that can be. As he put it, the crew’s focus should be on the car, not his emotions."

Who knew Junior and Kyle Busch had so much in common?

Sunday’s race could go down as a turning point in Earnhardt’s season. Or it could go down as a fluke finish in a fuel-mileage race. In either case, it’s nice to write a Junior post that does not contain the words "unbridled, unrelenting misery."

Cheers aside, Junior’s finish a quieter accomplishment (That’s Racin’)