Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 9, 2014

Junior’s Fast Start Has Hopes Soaring

At first glance Sunday was a disappointing day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his legion of loyal fans. Like so many visitors to Las Vegas, NASCAR’s most popular driver and his crew chief Steve Letarte gambled and lost. Their bet that the full tank of fuel that Earnhardt’s number 88 Chevrolet received during a pit stop on lap 212 would be enough to make it to the checkered flag came up snake eyes coming out of Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s turn two on the 267th and final lap of the Kobalt 400.

Earnhardt seized the lead in the race with just over 40 laps remaining, but as they counted down the circuits around the high-banked tri-oval Letarte told his driver over the radio that his calculations showed they were half to three-quarters of a lap short on fuel. Junior did his best to conserve gas while still holding off first Carl Edwards and then Brad Keselowski, but in the end Letarte’s calculus was exactly right. When his engine sputtered heading into the final run down the back stretch Earnhardt pulled to the bottom of the track, allowing Keselowski to speed past to victory.

But there were enough fumes left in the fuel line for Earnhardt to limp home in second place, and with that Junior’s remarkable start to NASCAR’s 2014 season continued. To his victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 Earnhardt has now added a pair of runner-up finishes, the second of which would have been another win had his car held just a couple more cups of high-octane Sunoco product. The schedule may say that there are thirty-three races still to be run, but the Earnhardt faithful are already dreaming of a championship and NASCAR’s management has to love the fact that their most marketable star is finally living up to the constant hype that surrounds him.

For Dale Junior the run of success has certainly been a long time coming. He won at Texas Motor Speedway in just his twelfth start in NASCAR’s top series in 2000, and was runner-up to Matt Kenseth in the Rookie of the Year voting that season. The following February Junior was pushing teammate Michael Waltrip to victory on the final lap at the Daytona 500 as his famous father was slamming into the wall coming out of turn four back up the track. Even as fans of Earnhardt Sr. grieved most transferred their allegiance from The Intimidator to his then 26-year old son. Beginning in 2003 and continuing right through last season, Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award eleven consecutive years. What he hasn’t won is a championship or in some years even any races.

In his early years the relative lack of success could be blamed on the financial constraints at Dale Earnhardt Inc. The company founded by his father was never one of NASCAR’s dominant garages after his death, lacking the deep pockets needed to put consistently successful cars on the track. That was supposed to change when Dale Junior moved to Hendrick Motorsports, stock car racing’s premier garage, in 2008. Rick Hendrick’s drivers have won eleven championships since 1995. Last season Jimmie Johnson claimed his sixth title and the four Hendrick teams made up nearly a third of the cars in the season-ending Chase for the Championship.

When Earnhardt won in Michigan in the summer of his first year in the Hendrick stable he ended a 76-race winless streak. While he added plenty of top-10 finishes and ran well enough to qualify for the Chase the last three years, he did not take another checkered flag until the summer of 2012, a gap of almost exactly four years and 143 races.

Then late last year, with the idea that his popularity far outstripped his ability being mentioned by more than the occasional naysayer, Junior began to turn things around. For the first time in more than a decade he won a pair of poles. He had a disastrous outing at Chicagoland in the first Chase race, where a blown engine consigned him to 35th place, dropping him from ninth to last in the 13-driver Chase. But in the nine remaining races he finished out of the top ten only once. Five times he was one of the first five drivers to cross the finish line, including three races where he ran second. In all Earnhardt recorded twenty-two top-10 finishes in 2013, just two fewer than Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

At the end of January NASCAR announced a new format for the Chase, with an expanded field of qualifiers based heavily on wins, and a gradual elimination of contestants after every three Chase races, so that only four drivers will have a shot at the title when they go green at Homestead next November. Lots of fans took notice when an analysis of the past three seasons showed that under the new format the 2013 Sprint Cup champion would have been Dale Junior rather than Johnson.

With their opening win at the 500 Earnhardt and crew chief Letarte showed that NASCAR’s winter layoff did nothing to slow their momentum. That victory virtually guarantees Junior a spot in the new 16-driver Chase field, and the back-to-back runner-up finishes that have followed have him atop the early standings. Under the Hendrick policy of regularly rotating crews among the four race teams this is Earnhardt and Letarte’s final season together. They may have come up half a lap short on Sunday, but the pair is giving every indication that they are determined to make 2014 a special season; one in which NASCAR’s most popular driver is also its best. That’s the Chase ending that Junior’s fans have been chasing for a very, very long time.

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