Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still human after all.
After setting a blistering pace to 2014, Earnhardt finished a disappointing 24th at the Food City 500. Things started off well enough, but then Junior quickly began to fade. He would finish only 499 laps of the race, four behind winner Carl Edwards.
It was clear that his car wasn't up to snuff, and when you fall down at Bristol it's extremely hard to get back up. The small nature of the track doesn't lend itself to making a huge comeback.
The knee-jerk reaction would be to question if this is the moment it all starts coming undone for Junior. His popularity off the track has always far outweighed his success on it, so some skeptics probably smell blood in the water.
On the other hand, why panic now? Earnhardt remains second behind Brad Keselowski in the standings and is in a great position to make the final Chase. And once there, the title is up for grabs.
|2014 Sprint Cup Standings|
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||153||1||3||3|
|10||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17||122||0||1||2|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2014 Results|
|Food City 500||Bristol Motor Speedway||14||24|
|Kobalt 400||Las Vegas Motor Speedway||14||2|
|The Profit on CNBC 500||Phoenix International Raceway||5||2|
|Daytona 500||Daytona International Speedway||9||1|
After NASCAR tweaked the rules for the Chase, the difference between a second-place finish and a last-place finish is negligible. It's like the Ricky Bobby "If you ain't first, you're last" belief has been taken as gospel.
This is right from the press release:
A victory in the first 26 races likely will guarantee a driver a berth in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup—a change that will put an unprecedented premium on winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race all season long.
Earnhardt can pretty much coast up until the final 10 races of the season off the back of his Daytona 500 win.
As a result of that relative comfort, Junior remained fairly stoic about his 24th-place finish at Bristol, per NASCAR.com's David Caraviello:
"As long as they're telling the truth about if you win, you're in, you ain't worried about it," he said in the garage area as rain began to fall once again. "You ain't worried about it -- you either win, or you don't win. Second (through) last doesn't really matter. If you don't win, you just go home and try again."
Writing for Bleacher Report, Jerry Bonkowski made the point that Junior's luck was bound to even out:
Junior was like a pressure cooker that just kept building in temperature. Sooner or later, it was either going to blow or someone would have to release the steam that had built up within him.
That happened Sunday.
Junior is not to be blamed for what happened at Bristol. He had a marginal car at a track where it's extremely difficult to pass and make up ground once you've fallen behind.
That's no doubt the wisest approach. Bristol is a fickle beast, and it's conquered all of the biggest names in NASCAR throughout its history. Finishing badly there isn't the worst thing in the world. You just need to put it behind you and focus on the rest of the season.
It appears that Earnhardt has no time to dwell on last Sunday's race.
He made sure not to blame his car for the poor result at Bristol. The tires, in particular, were a major issue, as two were blown during the race. Yet he took to Twitter to defend Goodyear:
Been asked a lot so I'll answer. We found nothing wrong with our car Sunday. Just got behind the changing track conditions due to weather.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 18, 2014
.@GoodyearRacing does a good job. The weather made things difficult on the new left side tire. But tire wear of any kind is refreshing.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 18, 2014
The good news for Earnhardt is that we're only four races into the new season. With more than 20 races left before the Chase begins, the standings will go through many iterations over the coming months.
The bad news, at least in the immediate future, is that he's got a good but not great record at the Auto Club Speedway over the last few years. Although he has put together a good string of results, he's yet to register a win at Fontana.
|Career Results at Fontana|
|Total Races||Avg. Start||Avg. Finish||Laps Led|
|With Hendrick Motorsports|
|With Dale Earnhardt Inc.|
While getting into Victory Lane may be a big ask for Junior, a top-10 or even top-five finish isn't out of the question. He was second at last year's race and third in 2012. In addition, his results have improved in each of the last five Sprint Cup races at the track, so Hendrick Motorsports seems to be on to something.
At the very least, Earnhardt should make up some ground on Keselowski and continue what's been a great start to the 2014 campaign.