With a win at Michigan—snapping a four-year drought—and a solid 16 top-10s in 24 starts, Earnhardt Jr. became one of four drivers to clinch a spot in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup on Saturday night at Bristol. He did so alongside some solid company: points leader Greg Biffle, teammate Jimmie Johnson and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.
In other words, Earnhardt Jr. should be viewed as a definite force to be reckoned with in this year's playoffs.
But a single race victory a champion does not make (unless you're Kenseth in 2003, which is the entire reason why the Chase exists in the first place). To win it all, Earnhardt Jr. will have to maintain the momentum that has gotten him this far, and find ways to build upon that and take his performances to the next level. With that in mind, here are the keys to adding another trophy to the family mantle.
Okay, this one is a gimme. Here's the thing, though: Tony Stewart showed last year that a bunch of winning performances in the Chase (five, to be exact) could offset poor finishes well enough to derail the most consistent performance in the format's history. Stewart and Carl Edwards tied in total points, but the tie goes to the driver with more victories.
With that being said, the most obvious strategy is also the catch-up strategy. Stewart ranked as low as seventh in points through four Chase races before ripping off three wins in the last four events to finish the season. It may sound desperate, and it would take a lot of luck to pull off, but Stewart proved last year that it's possible for the right team at the right time.
In other words, we've started with the last resort; on to the more realistic goals.
Mile-and-a-half tracks are the bread and butter of both NASCAR and the Chase. Earnhardt Jr. has been solid at them this year, posting finishes of 10th at Texas, seventh at Kansas, sixth at Charlotte and fourth at Kentucky. If he can maintain that caliber in the Chase races at Chicago, Kansas, Charlotte and Texas again, he'll seriously bolster his title hopes.
Here's the problem: Earnhardt Jr. led a grand total of zero laps in those four races, each of which was won by a likely Chase competitor (Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, respectively). Last year proved that a single point can be the difference between first and second place; imagine what four bonus points for leading laps could do.
We all know that Earnhardt Jr. is one of the top restrictor-plate drivers in NASCAR, having taken seven of his 19 career Sprint Cup wins at Daytona and Talladega. Luckily for him, Talladega holds an important spot in the Chase, and it's his better restrictor-plate track; he has five wins in 25 starts there compared to two wins in 26 at Daytona.
Talladega is usually viewed as a mulligan for Chase drivers because of the high probability of a major wreck, but any driver who can avoid trouble serves to gain plenty of points on those who crash. Unfortunately, Earnhardt Jr. has seen nothing but bad luck since winning this race in 2004; his fall finishes since have been 40th, 23rd, 40th, 28th, 11th, 39th, and 25th, respectively.
Even a top-10 finish would be good enough to surpass at least three or four drivers who will likely fall victim to Talladega's "big one."
Momentum is a strange and abstract thing in NASCAR. There always seems to be one driver who really has it, and a few guys who really don't, while many other drivers go virtually ignored either way. Earnhardt Jr. falls in the third category, quietly clinching his Chase berth with three top five finishes in the past six starts despite two runs of 28th or worse.
Denny Hamlin is the best example of how a shift in momentum can affect a driver during the Chase. Going into the penultimate race of 2010 at Phoenix, Hamlin led Jimmie Johnson in points, but the wrong fuel strategy set Hamlin back to 12th in the final running order. Despite the decent finish, a combination of disappointment in themselves and Johnson gaining points on them set the No. 11 team up to throw the title away at Homestead, which they did.
Disappointing top-15s can happen, but the No. 88 team can't allow the promise of a greater finish to cripple them in crunch time as Hamlin's squad did.
Hendrick Motorsports will aim to put all four of its cars in the Chase for the first time ever in 2012, having accomplished three cars multiple times in its history. Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are locked in, while Kasey Kahne seems set in to one wild-card position and Jeff Gordon can take the other with his second win of the year.
But putting an entire team in the Chase doesn't necessarily guarantee a successful year. Just ask Jack Roush, who put all five of his cars in the Chase in 2005 only to see Tony Stewart beat Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards for the title by 35 points each. It was still an impressive season for Roush, who took 15 of 36 race wins that year, but having too many dogs in the fight didn't leave enough points for any of them.
Stewart, meanwhile, had a declining Bobby Labonte as one teammate and a revolving door of young guns taking turns as the other, allowing Joe Gibbs Racing to focus on his title run. For Earnhardt Jr., this means finding a way to distance himself quickly from his Hendrick teammates.
Put together a few strong runs while they all struggle, and the whole team will get behind its top car. Let Johnson and Gordon outrace him early on, and he'll be too busy fighting for a table at the end-of-season awards banquet to contend for a title.