A year ago, or even a month ago, another second-place finish by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series would have opened the driver up to scorn, skepticism and maybe even a little ridicule. It's amazing what winning the Daytona 500 and a new Chase for the Sprint Cup qualifying format can do for someone.
With the season-opening 500 victory still in his pocket and fresh in everyone's minds, Earnhardt's second-place run in the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, while disappointing and frustrating on one level in the way it occurred, is no cause for alarm.
In fact, it's just the opposite.
In gambling on fuel, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte did exactly what they should have done. Because while they may have been betting that their No. 88 Chevrolet would not run out of gas, they were playing with house money earned via the Daytona triumph.
That is the simplistic beauty of NASCAR's new rules for qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and it is what led to the thrilling finish of the latest race at Las Vegas.
Yes, Earnhardt ran out of fuel with less than one lap to go and therefore meekly surrendered the lead to winner Brad Keselowski in the end. But prior to that, the two engaged in a duel for the lead that was at least partly calculated on Keselowski's part to force Earnhardt to stay on the gas more than he would have liked over the final laps.
It was fun to watch.
Under the old Chase qualifying rules, Earnhardt and Letarte likely wouldn't risk avoiding a stop to gas up and running out of fuel. They would have been more concerned about securing a solid points day that would have been assured had they come down pit road for even just a quick little splash of fuel in the race car's starving tank.
And who knows, maybe Keselowski wouldn't have been quite as aggressive in going after the win, either, although that's doubtful. The 2012 Sprint Cup champion is hungry for wins and the respect that comes with running well, and, quite honestly, he's probably a bit embarrassed that his defense of the 2012 title fell so short last season, when he failed to even qualify for the Chase.
Keselowski won only one race last season, and it came too late to aid his title defense. Under the new Chase qualifying format, winning one of the season's first 26 "regular-season" races is now of more paramount importance than ever, for it virtually guarantees securing a spot in the Chase.
Now that they have that first victory and almost certainly solidified their spot in the expanded 16-driver Chase, race winners Earnhardt, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick can be as aggressive as they wish. For the remainder of the regular season, they can take more risks in terms of strategy, experimental setups and even passing each other and the rest of the cars on the track in pursuit of additional wins. They have very little, and perhaps nothing, to lose.
Don't be mistaken. Earnhardt wanted to win the Vegas race and was disappointed when he didn't. But he wasn't too disappointed, as he expressed afterward to Jeff Owens of Sporting News:
We were not going to run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy. We knew we were going to be short (on fuel) and we tried to save as much as we could. We got it to about half a lap and it ran out in Turn 2 there. We took a gamble and we didn't win the race, but it still worked in our favor to run second and gave us a chance to win.
Earnhardt speaks these days with the cocksure confidence of a driver who knows his team has it together and is building fast race cars to put underneath him. Now, he doesn't have the added pressure of a long winless streak or even the week-to-week burden of ensuring he's in position to make the Chase.
Earnhardt hasn't been able to drive with this little emotional baggage in years, probably dating back to before his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Furthermore, there is his special relationship with Letarte to consider. Letarte already has announced he's leaving his driver and friend at the end of the season to join the broadcast booth at NBC in 2015.
They have double the incentive to win races and contend for the Sprint Cup championship that always has eluded Dale Jr. And by winning the Daytona 500 and placing second back-to-back in the two races that followed, they've plied themselves with the perfect combination of belief in each other and a stress-free atmosphere that should allow Junior to run like the wind every week.
Sure, there are going to be times when they miss the setup; there are simply too many faster cars that nail it or they get caught up in a wreck. The driver will almost certainly make some costly mistakes. But that's racing, and now none of that will be as magnified or as publicly scrutinized.
For the first time in a long, long time, Earnhardt's season has the real feel of something special. He's confident and worry-free. Plus, his chemistry and in-race communication with Letarte—so important when it comes to making adjustments to the race car and turning mediocre days into potentially great ones—is at an all-time high.
The odd caveat to all of this is that when the new Chase qualifying format, which emphasizes winning first, was announced, it didn't seem like it would favor Earnhardt at all. Now, it seems to be playing right into his hands.
There is an old saying in racing that to win races, first you have to start running up front consistently. Earnhardt is doing that, and this perfect storm of intangibles is riding along with him.
It's only a matter of time until he wins again, which would give NASCAR's most popular driver 11 times running his first season with multiple wins since 2004, when he won a career-high six while wheeling it for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
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