By Brian Thornsburg
Hold your breath, grab your four leaf clovers and cross your fingers, because Dale Earnhardt Jr. might finally be ready to capture the first Sprint Cup title of his 16-year career!
While it might seem like it’s a bit too early to make such a statement, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has more than proven his capability of winning his first title by his stats, his aggression and his ability to recover from bad luck early in a race.
Not only has the most popular driver finished second in the last two races this season, he also has a stellar record at Chase tracks as well. Jr. might have started out his season with a disastrous 38th finish in The Daytona 500, but he followed that up with a second place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway and an eight place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Unfortunately for Jr., he ran into some trouble two weeks later at Auto Club Speedway, where the Hendrick driver finished 11th.Luckily, he was then able to follow that up with a nice recovery at Texas and Bristol Motor Speedway, where Jr. took second in both races. Jr.’s finish at Bristol was made more impressive by the fact that Jr. recovered from electrical problems at the beginning of the race that left him two laps down.
With all that in mind, Jr. has also shown a lot of progress at the tracks that will be featured in the Chase later this year, capturing a Top-five at Texas and a Top-ten at Phoenix. While Jr. did have a lackluster 14th place finish at Martinsville Speedway, which is another Chase track in the ten race playoff schedule, one can take comfort in the fact that Jr. has won at the track before and his team seems to have had a pretty solid short track program this year.
Another sign of Jr.’s chances of capturing victory in the post season comes from his average finish on the Chase tracks compared to drivers that have already won this season. Despite the fact that defending Sprint Cup Champion, Kyle Busch, has an average finish of second on Chase tracks this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains tied for second with Carl Edwards with an average finish of fifth place at Chase tracks.
Jr. might be slightly behind Busch in average finishes for the time being, but with Chase tracks like Talladega, Kansas and Lowe’s Motor Speedway on the upcoming Sprint Cup Schedule, it should come as no surprise that Jr. will eventually surpass the defending cup champion in that stat category and make a huge statement heading into the postseason as well.
Looking at Jr.’s performance at these tracks during last year’s regular season, you’ll see that Jr. not only finished in the top-five in all three races, but that he also snatched himself a win at Talladega superspeedway. That should give Jr. confidence heading into these races this season and hopefully give him a strong performance to build upon if he qualifies for The Chase in September.
While performance might be on Jr.’s side, especially with his stellar record the last two years at Chase tracks in the regular season, NASCAR’s most popular driver does have a kryptonite that has prevented him from winning the championship over the course of his career. His kryptonite of course is the bad luck and lackluster performances he has when comes time to Chase the championship.
Take Jr.’s 2014 post season for example. Despite Jr. slipping through to the second round by the skin of his teeth, he proceeded to have three straight finishes outside the top-20 and lost his chance to move on to the next round of the playoffs. The saddest part of all this was that Jr. had led laps during all three of those races, but always fell victim to someone else wreck or had bad mechanical problems that took him out of contention.
Although Jr. was knocked out of the 2014 Chase for the championship in the second round, he won the very next week at Martinsville, which would have guaranteed him a spot in the final round of the chase if he hadn’t been knocked out a week earlier. Not only was this a bitter sweet moment for Jr. and his fans, but it was even worse considering just how big the win would have been if Jr. was actually still in The Chase at the time.
Jr. had the same luck in The 2015 Chase, where he was knocked out of The Chase for the second year in a row. Unfortunately for Jr. and NASCAR officials, Jr. was knocked out of The Chase after finishing second to Joey Logano at Talladega Superspeedway, which is one of Jr.’s best tracks. That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad if NASCAR hadn’t labeled its first green-white-checkered attempt as a false restart and forced the drivers to line up again for another one.
Jr. came within inches of passing Logano on the very next restart of the race, but was unfortunately stopped in his tracks by another untimely caution and the win was eventually handed to Joey Logano for being just slightly ahead of Jr. at the time.. This of course angered many NASCAR fans, especially since Jr. needed the win that day in order to guarantee himself a spot in the next round of The Chase.
Adding insult to injury, Jr. once again took home a victory in the second to last round of The Chase at Phoenix, which would have guaranteed him a spot in the championship four of The Chase if he wasn’t knocked out a round earlier. The win by Jr. at Phoenix also made fans angrier with how Jr. was essentially cheated out of a chance at the championship at Talladega, especially since NASCAR reversed their own restart rule to hand Logano the win.
With that being said and the amount of effort and perseverance Jr. has shown so far this season, hopefully this season will be different for him and result in the first championship of his career. He has the equipment, he has the race winning crew chief and he has the top notch performances he’s given so far this season. The only thing he needs now is a little luck on top of that and maybe, just maybe, it will finally be his time to shine at Homestead Miami with a championship firmly in his hand.