Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was looking forward to Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.
That should have been the first indication that something is different with NASCAR's most popular driver this year.
Sitting in second place in the Sprint Cup standings and fresh from a victory at Michigan International Speedway last weekend, Earnhardt in 2012 has rejuvenated his once-promising driving career.
With a crew chief he trusts, the backing of team owner Rick Hendrick, the support of his legions of fans and a newfound swagger, Earnhardt -- in his 13th full season -- is now in prime position to win his first Cup championship.
"I'm really excited because I think he's having fun and looking forward to the races. And that's all about your confidence," Hendrick said Tuesday in a conference call with the media. "You just got to get in a rhythm where you can run good every week when you feel that way."
In 2007, Earnhardt made the decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. and join Hendrick Motorsports -- a team that has won 10 Cup titles. He made the Chase for the Cup in 2008, but things went downhill in 2009 and 2010 as he finished 25th and 21st in points, respectively.
Hendrick made major changes before the start of the 2011 season, as he took crew chief Steve Letarte away from Jeff Gordon's team and paired him with Earnhardt.
Things began to turn around. Earnhardt didn't win a race last year, but he had 12 top 10 results and
"I learned a lot from Mr. Hendrick on how to deal with people and with relationships, and the most important thing is to create your own relationship firsthand," Letarte said. "Dale and I did that.
"We sat down and went through what we thought the concerns were, the strengths were. We took a very methodical approach. We kind of walked before we could run and tried to run before we thought we could win."
Earnhardt began this season with a second-place finish at the Daytona 500. He's been in the top five six times, including his victory last week that snapped a Cup winless streak of 143 races (four years).
In April, Earnhardt was asked if he thought teammate and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was a better driver than he is. Illustrating the growth in his confidence, Earnhardt stated he was the best driver in the Hendrick stable, which also happens to include Gordon, a four-time champion.
"When he came out and said, 'I'm getting the job done, I'm the 'A' horse in the stable right now,' and felt good about saying that, that just showed me he was at max confidence," Hendrick said. "That's what he needs."
Besides a better attitude at the track, Earnhardt said he's changed his habits away from it.
Earnhardt said he used to spend a lot of time chatting and racing online. These days, under the direction of Letarte, he is putting more energy into his racing and is a greater part of the No. 88 Chevrolet team.
"The driver isn't a subcontractor," Letarte said, "he's a team member."
Earnhardt is also being a bit more social, as he plays on a softball team in Mooresville, N.C., with the crew at his JR Motorsports Nationwide Series company.
"We play against Mooresville Lowe's or 84 Lumber or I don't know who we played against (Thursday) night," Earnhardt said. "We are in the playoffs and having a good time. Just getting out and doing stuff that I didn't do before."
If Earnhardt is happy, then NASCAR is happy. Ticket sales have been brisk this week at Sonoma raceway following Earnhardt's win in Michigan, where overnight ratings on TNT increased 15 percent -- the greatest increase for any race this season.
According to The Sporting News, Earnhardt merchandise at NASCAR.com accounted for 78 percent of its sales on Monday. Usually it's around 25 percent.
Gordon said it makes a major impact for any sport when its biggest stars hold up trophies -- like LeBron James and the Miami Heat did this week with the NBA title.
"When they do, it makes them a bigger star, but it also makes the sport grow," Gordon said. "That's no different in our sport and Junior."
Earnhardt would like to maintain his second-place standing with a decent finish in Sunday's race -- where he qualified 19th -- but it won't be easy. In 12 Cup races in Sonoma, Earnhardt has not finished inside the top 10. He was 41st out of 43 cars last season, and has been critical of the track's limited passing zones in recent years.
Earnhardt said road courses are "not my forte, not really where my bread is buttered. You come in here and you have to kind of have a positive attitude and take whatever comes your way. Take the good with the bad the same."
Even if Earnhardt doesn't get the result he's looking for Sunday, it doesn't seem like he'll dwell on it for long. Things are going too well right now.
"I think he's happy in his life, with his girlfriend. I mean, I think life is good," Hendrick said. "I think he should be walking around with a 'life is good' hat on right now. He's the happiest I've ever seen him."