Following two straight weeks of subpar results for Dale Earnhardt Jr., he navigated the No. 88 car back into the top three for the fourth time this season at the STP 500.
Martinsville is historically a track where Earnhardt has driven strong but has never visited Victory Lane. Despite not being able to break that trend, Junior Nation should certainly be happy seeing the No. 88 machine back at the top of the driver standings.
Much like everyone else on the track, Earnhardt was involved in a brush up at Martinsville. While he was able to keep his car somewhat clean for the majority of the race, Junior did cause a wreck that took Jamie McMurray out of the running.
A total of 20 races still remain in the season before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, and with Junior having a win and four top-three results he still looks like one of the best drivers on the circuit.
Before the cars line up for the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET on Fox, here's a look at the latest news on Earnhardt leading up to the race.
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||227||1||4||4|
|STP 500||Martinsville Speedway||26||3|
|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|
|Auto Club 400||Auto Club Speedway||15||12|
Coming into the season, all the pressure in NASCAR was once again squarely on the shoulders of Earnhardt. As the 11-time Most Popular Driver on the Sprint Cup circuit, expectations are always high.
But after getting a win to start out the season, that weight has been relieved and he has exploded. After proving that he was human for two straight weeks outside the top 10, Junior finished with his 11th top-five finish at Martinsville and is back on top—right where his fans want him.
Earnhardt spoke about his strategy and performance at the STP 500, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports:
You had to just discipline yourself to not use the throttle, and I think we'll have a lot of fun looking at the throttle trace on some of them runs because I was quarter throttle at the max ... even on the straightaways. There just wasn't no point in mashing the gas any further than that.
You couldn't run any harder with the wear we had on the tires. You just couldn't afford to. You saw how the 20 car (Kenseth) and the 18 car (Busch), those guys would run real hard at the lead early in the race, and they set an example for the rest of us to watch out and be easy on that left-€‘rear tire, and it just goes away like a snap.
Where will Earnhardt finish at Texas?
One of the biggest reasons Junior is able to show the patience that he did at Martinsville is thanks to the aforementioned win at the Daytona 500. While there is certainly a want for any driver like Earnhardt to revisit Victory Lane, it's no longer a necessity.
What a win would mean for Earnhardt at any track is getting his first multi-win season since 2004, when he won six races. That also just so happened to be the last time he won the Great American Race and one of just four times that he has finished inside the top five in points for the season.
Another point of emphasis all season for Earnhardt has been wanting to send off crew chief Steve Letarte on the right note. Letarte will be stepping down at the end of the season to join NBC, and Junior spoke once more about how vital he was during the STP 500, per Jensen:
You can easily get yourself carried away and race a guy and forget taking care of your car and taking care of your left-€‘rear tire. It's easy to get swept up in the competition of things, and he (Letarte) is good at sort of cheerleading you along the way and running the show. He does a good job on top of the box.
While Junior was able to come away with a great finish, he certainly didn't come away unblemished at the short track. The wreck with the No. 1 car was easily overshadowed by the previous skirmish between Keselowski and Busch, but McMurray didn't forget about the brush-up that ended his day on the track.
McMurray shared his thoughts on the wreck, via Nate Ryan of USA Today:
I thought (Earnhardt) would be a little more patient as I tried to get through. It's hard to understand how slick it is. The tires are on edge after 15 to 20 laps. He barely got into me, and you hope when that happens, they get off you, and he didn't.
Earnhardt also responded, according to Ryan, by saying, "I don't think I did anything wrong. He knew was there, just rolling in there."
While that may be a storyline to watch heading into this weekend's race, it is a completely different style of track and one that Junior has once again thrived at.
Back in April of 2000, Earnhardt claimed his first-ever victory on the Sprint Cup circuit at Texas Motor Speedway. Since that point, he has not won another race in the Lone Star state, but has racked up multiple top fives and finished inside the top 10 in over half the races he has run at the track.
Here's a look at Junior's overall results at Texas:
|Wins||Top 5||Top 10||Avg. Finish||Avg Running Pos.||Driver Rating||Quality Passes|
|1||4||13||13.7||11.5 (5th)||93.8 (7th)||736 (2nd)|
Though the No. 88 car hasn't led a lap at Texas since 2011, according to Driver Averages, Earnhardt has qualified seventh or better in his last two times at the track and has finished seventh or better in three of the last five runnings.
Much like Martinsville, Earnhardt hasn't finished at the top of the podium in many races at Texas. Another win doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility with the great driving that Junior has shown this year during the early going, but expecting a top-five result seems more likely for the Hendrick driver.
Predicted Finish: Fifth
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter. He knows his NASCAR.