NASCAR took a week off for the Easter holiday and to allow drivers, crews and fans to take a breath after an exciting start to the season.
The break was well deserved for Dale Earnhardt Jr., as the Daytona 500 winner put together one of the strongest starts to a season in his career. Following the win to start the season, Earnhardt finished inside the top three in four of the next seven races and currently sits at fourth in the points standings.
After that success early in the year, Junior is heading to a track where he has enjoyed plenty of triumph in his career at Richmond International Raceway.
With nearly one third of the season wrapping up, many of the top drivers like Junior have established their dominance in the sport.
Before the Toyota Owners 400 gets underway on Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET on Fox, here's a look at the latest news for Earnhardt as well as an update on his team in the Nationwide Series.
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|4||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||271||1||5||5|
|Bojangles' Southern 500||Darlington Raceway||15||2|
|Duck Commander 500||Texas Motor Speedway||19||43|
|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|
Darlington Raceway is commonly known around the racing community as the track that is "Too Tough to Tame." Apparently nobody told Junior that when he took the track looking for his second win of the season.
Having one of the best cars on the track, Earnhardt was out to a huge lead late in the race. But when a crash occurred with just two laps left, Kevin Harvick took four tires and drove past the No. 88 car for the win, with Earnhardt settling for a second-place finish—the best of his career at Darlington.
Junior spoke about the result in South Carolina, via Jay Pennell of Fox Sports:
Everybody was telling me that I had a 15-car-length lead, and I don't want to hear about that. I'm going to hear about it all day tomorrow, man; you almost won it. They said we had it won with a 15-car-length lead coming into that last white flag when the caution come out on the back straightaway.
But I don't know how good Kevin was. He was pretty fast. I think he was going to drive the (expletive) out of it and try to get there. I was trying not to look in the mirror, just try to run as hard as I could. [...]
Running second is great but nobody is going to really remember that. But we're proud of it.
Though Junior wasn't able to come away with the win at Darlington, one of his drivers at JR Motorsports continued to rise up the ladder in the Nationwide Series with a win.
Chase Elliott is racing in his first season at the Nationwide level and already has two wins. Both came in consecutive weekends at Texas and Darlington, giving JRM three victories in the first seven races.
With his father, Bill Elliott, being one of the most famous drivers in NASCAR history, Chase Elliott has some big shoes to fill. And he's doing just that at the Nationwide level, according to Jeff Owens of Sporting News:
Chase Elliott, an 18-year-old development driver for Hendrick Motorsports, has won the last two Nationwide Series races for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports. The first came at Texas, where Earnhardt Jr. won his first Nationwide race and his first Cup race. The second came at Darlington, where his father scored his historic victories in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Though Chase has built an impressive resume while climbing through the ranks, his win at Darlington, which came against such veteran stars as Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, was an eye-opener. It was a clear sign that he might just have the talent to follow in his father’s footsteps and become one of NASCAR’s next big stars.
While the 18-year-old driver is clearly making his mark at the level just below the Sprint Cup circuit, Junior doesn't believe he should be in any rush to jump to the next stage in his career.
Earnhardt shared his thoughts on both Elliott and another young driver that has experienced surprising success this year during a conversation with his fans on Twitter:
As for Junior's individual greatness this season, many of NASCAR's analysts believe he has been the best driver on the circuit through the first portion.
Sitting at fourth in Sprint Cup points and coming up just short with a second-place finish at three tracks following his Daytona 500 win, voting for the early season MVP went to Earnhardt from four out of five writers at NASCAR.com.
David Caraviello provides his thoughts on Earnhardt's success in the early going in the article:
It's not just the Daytona 500 title -- it's the fact that Earnhardt has maintained the momentum he built over the latter third of last season, and shows every sign of being a legitimate contender for the duration. His five top-fives lead the series, his career-best second at Darlington spoke volumes and that No. 88 team has been as consistently strong as any other group in the sport.
After a hot start, Junior now heads to a track where he has enjoyed a tremendous amount of prosperity, winning three races before joining Hendrick Motorsports and two top-five results with the team.
Here's a look at Earnhardt's overall results at the track, courtesy of driveraverages.com:
|Wins||Top 5||Top 10||Avg. Finish||Avg. Start||Driver Rating|
Where will Earnhardt finish at Richmond?
Though Earnhardt hasn't enjoyed the same amount of success with Hendrick as he did with DEI at Richmond, nothing is out of the realm of possibility for Junior this season. Following a great run at Darlington, a track where he hasn't had a great run, expect him to shine again in Richmond.
With a tremendous amount of early success at the track, expect Junior to once again at least finish inside the top five and start this portion of the season off nearly as strong as the opening of the year.
Projected Finish: Third
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