The 2014 Sprint Cup schedule is still brand new, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the clear favorite to win the championship after getting off to a scorching-hot start this season.
In two starts, the son of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. has finished in first and second place, winning the Daytona 500 and then falling just short of a second win at Phoenix to Kevin Harvick.
Jerry Bonkowski of MotorSportsTalk.com noted this is Earnhardt's best season start in his 15-year career on the Sprint Cup, adding:
Granted, there are still 34 races left, but a first and second place finish in the first two events, coupled with Earnhardt remaining atop the Sprint Cup standings, bodes well for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years.
Earnhardt won just four races in the past nine years before this season, but he has been in the hunt for many more victories the past two years, posting 20 top-five finishes in 2012-13. He was running hot at the end of last season during The Chase, as well, and the momentum finally appears to be carrying over.
Of course, if you're someone who looks for patterns in everything and he finishes in third place next weekend in Las Vegas, then there might be cause for concern.
For everyone else, Earnhardt's hot start is not only a welcome development (the sport is always better when Earnhardt is running well), but it clearly illustrates his comfort level with himself, his team and his car.
“I was wondering if we was going to carry on the momentum from last year, running so good in the Chase,” Earnhardt said after finishing in second place at Phoenix, via Bob Pockrass of Sporting News. “Also with the rules, I was wondering where we were going to fall in performance with the competition, what did people learn during the offseason, who was going to stand out like the 4 car (of Harvick) did today and all weekend.
“It seems like we aren't behind. We aren't where the 4 car is, but we're definitely close.”
Every week presents a different challenge on the Sprint Cup Series, but the veteran driver and his crew are well equipped to handle any and everything that comes their way.
Next up for Earnhardt and his fellow competitors is the 2014 Kobalt Tools 400. He was able to finish in seventh place on the 1.5-mile track at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last season and should be among the top finishers again this year, barring any equipment malfunction or an unfortunate crash.
Should Earnhardt finish this third race near or atop the standings, then he'll see a huge wave of fan support as he continues to find success. His popularity has always been sky high, but winning tends to boost popularity in ridiculous proportions.
Earnhardt winning the 2014 Sprint Cup Series Championship would be wonderful for the sport, and it would likely be a huge boost for NASCAR's ratings and its product sales. This man is one of the biggest stars on the track every week, and now, he's finally getting the results he desires.
The season is still long and arduous. Anything can happen. That said, there's no doubt Earnhardt is the early favorite to finish the season as the top driver on the Sprint Cup Series.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78