Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. snap his winless streak and score a win before the beginning of the Chase in September?
Junior has had several close calls over the last couple of seasons. Last year he was passed in the final few laps at Martinsville. A few weeks later he ran out of gas at Charlotte coming off Turn 4. Last week he ran second to Kyle Busch at Richmond. He’s run well, very well at times…but he hasn’t won.
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.
Sam: The paradox that is Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues in full force these days. Or perhaps better put, the paradox of fan and media obsession with wins and Junior's most excellent season continues, and builds, in strength.
To beat a very dead horse, or even a whole stable of very dead horses, the fellow hasn't won a race since June of 2008, with anniversary number four rapidly approaching. On the other hand, Dale and crew chief Steve Letarte are continuing to prove their legitimacy in championship contention. Junior sits a superb second in the points, with a league-leading seven top-10's (tied with teammate Jimmie Johnson) bolstering him to within a mere five points of leader Greg Biffle. With nine races down in the season, this is most certainly not a performance fluke. But to return to that purifying stable of dead horses...will the man win? Will he win before the Chase?
It's everything but guaranteed that Junior will be in the Chase. Seismic collapses won't be discussed here, as one could always dig up something to panic about. In the meantime, the many monkeys on Junior’s back continue haranguing him every week about his lack of a win. To return to the original question—will Junior win before the Chase—things are looking quite sporty for the legend's son. He is proving capable of top ten and top-five contention most every week, one of the few drivers currently doing so. He is also demonstrating a very key quality necessary for winning success on the cup level; that is, he and his team are often putting themselves in improved track positions at the end of races, versus fading over the course of the day.
Last weekend at Richmond was a fine example. After running decently in the top ten and top five all evening, Junior and Co. put together an excellent final pit stop which Junior then parlayed into a second-place run. In addition to good runs in general, the 88 machine is also showing the key ability to be good when it counts the most.
With those things said, the immediate future looks bright for Dale Jr. Talladega looms large on the horizon, as well as several other venues (Charlotte among them) which have featured near-missed for Junior in recent races.
With contending speed and excellent consistency, Team 88 gets the green flag of winning affirmation. They'll nab a win, or two, before Chase time.
Luke: Upon his much-heralded arrival at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was expected to contend not just for wins by the bunches, but championships and the title of “World’s Greatest Stock Car Driver This Side of Dale Earnhardt Sr.”
Okay, that might be overstating what expectations were in those heady early days of driving for NASCAR’s top team, but suffice it to say, no one imagined a winless streak that is threatening to crack the four-year mark, or two finishes outside the top 20 in the points.
Earnhardt Jr. would love nothing better than to get back to Victory Lane in the coming weeks (hey, why not at Talladega this Sunday?) and rack up a few bonus points for the Chase. With the way Junior has been running this season, making the Chase can’t be too great a worry—he’s second in the points, after all.
The only thing missing has been winning. And you had better believe that winning is the foremost thought on Dale Junior’s mind (and on the minds of many other people, including NASCAR—the people running our sport have been wishing to see the most popular driver take the checkered flag for quite a while now).
Would that be a great story? Absolutely. Is it likely to happen? No.
Sure, Dale Jr. looks more confident, more comfortable in his own skin…and just plain cockier on the track than he has appeared in a few years. He’s enjoying his job once again and the results on the track have improved dramatically. However, I don’t see him winning any time soon. Other than perhaps a fluke win at Talladega (and Junior would be the first to tell you that wins at the plate tracks are simple flukes these days, a complete crapshoot) I don’t see the No. 88 taking a race by the horns and pulling victoriously into Victory Lane.
It could happen, no doubt. But the odds are against Junior, and I have nearly four years of history to back up my opinion. Much as I’d like to see it for Junior Nation, the good of NASCAR in general, and for the man himself—I have to give a red flag to the likelihood of Junior scoring a victory before the Chase arrives in mid-September.
Don’t crucify me, folks. I hope I’m wrong. I really do.
Final analysis: Sharply divided opinion among the scribes leads to a yellow flag of uncertainty. That leaves it up to the man on the track to settle this controversy!
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