One of the biggest stories of this Sprint Cup season has been the revitalization of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career. After four years of winless competition, Earnhardt Jr. finally broke his drought at the same track where it began, Michigan International Speedway, and currently sits second in points, 25 behind leader Matt Kenseth.
But does that mean Earnhardt Jr. has a serious chance at winning this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup?
A Cup championship would be huge for both Earnhardt Jr., who has won the past nine Most Popular Driver Awards, and NASCAR, which has struggled to maintain major sponsorships, capacity crowds, and full fields as a sport over the past few years.
Luckily for both, his performance this year suggests that he has the car to do it.
Of the 10 tracks in the Chase, the Cup series has already raced at seven—Dover, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix—and will compete at an eighth, Loudon, this weekend. In previous races at those seven tracks, Earnhardt Jr. has scored six top-10 finishes and has an average finish of 7.6. His best run was a third place finish at Martinsville.
During Sprint All-Star weekend at Charlotte, he also added wins in the Sprint Showdown and fourth segment of the All-Star Race, finishing fifth overall.
Much of the competition has been just as competitive, though. Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Greg Biffle each have an average finish of 6.0 in those seven events. Meanwhile, five-time Chase winner Jimmie Johnson has an average finish of 9.7. However, defending champion and well known late bloomer Tony Stewart has only mustered an average finish of 20.0.
The problem with Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase chances is that his average finishes at the majority of Chase tracks are, well, average.
Of the eight tracks where Earnhardt Jr. has an average finish of 15.0 or better, only Martinsville (12.6), Texas (13.9) and Chicago (14.8) are on the Chase schedule. He's also only earned five of his 19 career Cup victories (two at Phoenix, one apiece at Dover, Texas and Chicago) at Chase locations.
By comparison, Kenseth has earned eight of his 22 wins at Chase tracks, and has average finishes of 15.0 or better at five tracks. Ten of Biffle's 17 Cup wins have come in Chase locations as well. As for Johnson, his five consecutive Chase championships should say it all.
In other words, not only is Earnhardt Jr. going to have to keep up his momentum from the first half of the season, he's going to have to figure out how to beat the competition on what is effectively their playing field.
Finding ways to win in the final ten races of the season should be the top priority, then, because the competition will be taking just about every win that he doesn't. Those wins buy a driver plenty of help in points. Remember, Stewart won last year's title with five victories despite a 25th place finish at Dover and Carl Edwards' 10 straight Chase finishes of 11th or better. They tied in points, but Stewart took the title by virtue of those five wins to Edwards' one (at Las Vegas in March).
No driver has ever won a Chase championship without taking any victories, though Edwards came the closest. As strong as Earnhardt Jr. has been this year, his competition has had an easier time getting into victory lane. Unless he can visit the winner's circle more consistently, his Chase hopes may fade quickly in the final months of the season.