Originally written on Race Review Online  |  Last updated 10/17/14

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, stands on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2009 in Avondale, AZ. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

 

Career Numbers Propel Earnhardt To No. 1 Ranking

Two challenges met. One remains.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who snapped a lengthy victory drought in June, has completed the long, nearly nine-year road back to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings.

Junior and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team truly can focus on the biggest prize, their first championship. And it’s certainly not a stretch to mention Earnhardt and championship in the same sentence.

“Give me a reason why not,” said crew chief Steve Letarte when asked for reasons why his driver could win the 2012 title.

Earnhardt is, in fact, on a career pace. His numbers through 20 races speak for themselves:

Nine top fives, matching his previous best in 2004
Fifteen top 10s
Average finish of 8.1
A perfect 20 lead-lap finishes, including last Sunday’s fourth-place run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dating back to last season, he has a record-sharing 21 consecutive lead-lap finishes.
Second-best career Driver Rating through 20 races of 102.0 that trails only the 102.6 of 2008

Earnhardt last officially led the standings on Sept. 19, 2004, following a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a span of 281 starts. He also sat atop the points after the Oct. 3, 2004 race at Talladega Superspeedway, but lost it midweek after a 25-point penalty stemming from a post-race Victory Lane interview.

“All season long we've been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we've done,” Earnhardt said following his Brickyard finish. He’s been outside the top five in points just once. “We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in Chase.”

Earnhardt snapped a four-year winless streak on June 17 at Michigan International Raceway. He’s finished in the top five in three of the subsequent five races with his only real stumble a 23rd on the road course at Sonoma.

There’s no single key to Junior’s turnaround, which has been more like a continuing process. His first season with Letarte put the team in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ for the first time with a final finish of seventh. Pairing the No. 88 team in the same shop as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 – and a closer relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus – has paid dividends as well.

That association isn’t lost on Johnson, who may wind up being Earnhardt’s chief rival for the championship.

“There’s a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it’s ever been,” said Johnson in his Indianapolis winner’s press conference. “I’m happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them and it’s a two-way street.”

Time Quickly Expiring For Chase Hopes Of Many

Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 isn’t quite a must-win race for competitors in the Chase “wild card” derby. But it’s close to it. Just six races remain until the 12-driver field for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ is set following the Sept. 8 event at Richmond International Raceway.

Nothing changed at Indianapolis. Kasey Kahne, with two victories, continues to hold the first of two “wild cards” available to drivers ranked 11th through 20th in the standings with most wins. Kyle Busch follows, 11th in points – 55 out of the top 10 – with one win.

Ryan Newman (14th) and June Pocono winner Joey Logano (17th) each need another trip to Victory Lane.

Time is running out for two pre-season favorites who qualified for the Chase in 2011. Carl Edwards, who lost the 2011 title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, finished 29th at Indianapolis and dropped to 12th in the points.

“We have to go race. We can do that, we can race like that,” said Edwards, who has a pair of Pocono victories. “It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins.”

 Five-time Pocono winner Jeff Gordon faces the same reality – ranked 15th and 79 points out of 10th Gordon finished 19th at Pocono in June after a litany of issues cost him track position.

Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton also remain “wild card” eligible based upon points. None have a Pocono win.

‘Five Time’ Joins Battle For Top Chase Seeding

It’s getting crowded at the top.

Jimmie Johnson’s third victory of the season – and record-matching fourth win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – creates a trio of drivers fighting for top seeding in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

He joins reigning champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. Each would begin the post season with nine bonus points, three points for each victory on top of a base of 2,000. Johnson, whose perfect 150.0 Driver Rating was the first in the series since the final race of 2010 (Carl Edwards), looks more and more like the competitor who won five consecutive championships.

Over the past seven races beginning with a fourth-place performance at Pocono Raceway, Johnson has a victory and four top-five and six top-10 finishes. Stewart and Keselowski also have won during that span.

Johnson, 36, makes no secret of his ultimate goal: eight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, one more than the seven of NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty was 42 when he won his last title; Earnhardt was 43.

“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we're as strong as we've ever been. We've had issues late in a race that's cost us track position for a variety of reasons and that's the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase,” said Johnson, who won for the 58th time, second among active drivers.

Pocono A Mixed Bag For JGR

Two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers love the unique layout of Pocono Raceway. The other finds the Tricky Triangle just that.

Joey Logano, winner of June’s Pocono race, placed himself in the Wild Card conversation with a pass for the lead of Mark Martin with three laps remaining. That same race, teammate Denny Hamlin rung up a typical top-five Pocono finish, another in a line of solid Pocono performances that include four career wins at the 2.5-mile track. Logano looks to become the first driver to win three consecutive Coors Light Poles at Pocono since Bill Elliott in 1984-85.

But then there’s the curious case of Kyle Busch, dominant at almost any venue he enters – except for Pocono. In June, he finished 30th. And it wasn’t all that surprising. In 15 starts, Busch has four finishes of 30th or worse. His Pocono Driver Rating of 86.5 makes the track his fourth-worst in terms of the Loop Data statistic. His average Pocono finish of 18.3 makes it his fifth-worst track.

But there have been glimmers of brilliance from Busch at NASCAR’s most unique venue. Prior to June’s race, Busch ripped off two consecutive top-five finishes, including a second-place finish in this race last year.

Momentum, as well as a sense of urgency, envelopes Busch as the regular season comes to a rapid close. Busch finished second last week at Indianapolis, his first top-five finish since the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Prior to the Indy run, Busch had an average finish of just 22.6 in the previous seven starts. His second-place run pushed Busch to 11th in the standings, 55 points outside the top 10.

Pocono Has Been ‘Black Hole’ For Childress Drivers

Kevin Harvick and his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Series Chevrolet are likely to qualify for the Chase for the third consecutive year. Harvick ranks sixth in the standings with a 65-point cushion over 11th-place Kyle Busch.

That’s the good news. The bad? Harvick and RCR are winless in 2012. The team is riding a drought of 30 races dating to the beginning of last year’s Chase. Harvick’s last victory, of four, came at Richmond last September.

There’s still time for Harvick to improve his seeding – or for teammates Paul Menard (16th) and Jeff Burton (20th) to qualify as a “wild card.” Pocono, however, wouldn’t appear to be a likely place for that renaissance.

RCR’s last of two Pocono victories – both by Dale Earnhardt – came in 1993. The organization has not posted a finish better than fourth since 1994. RCR’s average finish at the 2.5-mile triangle is 15.8 – fractionally higher than Harvick’s average of 14.0. Qualifying has been the team’s Achilles’ Heel: a single pole, by Mike Skinner in 1999, with average start of 17.6 on a layout where track position is crucial.

June’s results were solid but not spectacular. Menard was ninth, one of four top 10s this season. Harvick was 14th and Burton 15th.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Kasey Kahne will make his 500th NASCAR national series start on Sunday. The breakdown: 308 starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; 186 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and five in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He has a combined 26 wins in the three series. … Ryan Newman continues the hunt for 50 Coors Light Poles. Newman has two poles at Pocono, the last coming in 2007. … John Wes Townley will make his series debut in the No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford on Sunday. … Drivers Denny Hamlin, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Joey Coulter visited Philadelphia Eagles training camp last Friday to promote this weekend’s races. To view photos of the event, click here.

NASCAR PR, photo courtesy of NASCARmedia.com

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