Sunday was a day of profound jubilation for the eighth continent of the world, that is to say, Junior Nation. Official reports aren't clear as to whether or not the holiday in Junior Nation has ended, but another racing week usually has the effect of bringing things to an earthly focus again.
One of Junior's most notoriously difficult tracks (Sonoma) looms, and he'll be hard-pressed to add another tally mark to his series-leading top-10 numbers. Whatever the case, the overarching issue is far above and beyond a single win or race weekend. Is Junior a top title contender, and will he be one come Chase time?
That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic, or black flag if he's dead set in opposition to the idea.
Luke: Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. a serious title contender? The question of his capabilities and potential as a driver is a tricky one to assess.
On the one hand, the man has the skills to get the job done. One doesn’t win 19 Cup races by accident. One the other hand, we’re talking about a driver who has one win in his past 200+ starts and hasn’t had a top-five championship finish since 2006.
On the other hand (back to the positive side of the ledger here), Junior is leading laps at his best rate in several seasons. He leads the series in top-10’s and is a mere four points behind championship leader Matt Kenseth. His relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte is strong and he has a look of confidence that’s been missing from the face of NASCAR’s most popular driver since his glory days at DEI.
All of that is very positive, but the factor that pushes me to give the green light—er, flag—to Dale Jr. is a comparison with his five-time championship winning teammate Jimmie Johnson. Junior is ahead of Johnson in the points and his worst finish is 17th. Johnson has two finishes of 35th or worse. I’m not saying the No. 88 is better than the No. 48 right now, but it’s right there.
And it’s worth pointing out that Junior’s strength stretches back to last season. Yes, I know he didn’t win any races in 2011, but he showed quiet strength and finished seventh in the standings, which was just one spot worse than Johnson managed in a down year for HMS. Thus far this year, Junior is arguably having just as fine a season as his more accomplished teammate.
Junior Nation, the party is far from over. I give a green flag to your driver’s standing as a championship-caliber driver in 2012!
Sam: That matter of prognostication is one which is somewhat independent of statistics. As a writer, one wants to look at past stats, trends, et cetera, searching for a factual basis to present to readers looking for such. In Junior's case, his past stats indicate a bit of everything. He's made the Chase, missed the Chase; he's had bad years and good years; he's been both a top-five championship finisher and a top-15 straggler.
With all of that said, it's also fair to point out that the competition level in NASCAR's top series is capable of bringing out all sorts of somewhat unexpected twists and turns. Tony Stewart rewrote 2012 analysis by going on an entirely unforeseen tear in the Chase to win the cup. The point there is that while nothing is guaranteed for Junior now, or in the Chase, it is a perfectly legitimate speculation that a driver like Junior could win the Chase this year.
The most probable barometer of Junior's likely success is this year. Simply put, it's been almost impossible for him to run anywhere outside of the top-10, and unlike the past half-decade, he has led a good number of laps in a good number of races. By all accounts, the tide has legitimately turned for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in regards to performance and consistency. Whether or not that means he will actually win the title this year is another question. The question at hand, of course, is whether or not Junior should be qualified as a top title contender.
With a healthy dose of current statistics and trends, a look back at past brilliance and current potential, and an eye to the ever-shifting NASCAR competition which is fraught with breakout opportunity, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets the green flag of 2012 elite status.
Final analysis: Luke and Sam are in agreement. It’s a green flag of affirmation for Junior to put together a serious title run in 2012.