They may have many things in common—starting with being great race car drivers—but there’s one thread that binds Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch that no other NASCAR driver can claim.
Chew on that for a second.
Harvick and Busch are the first two NASCAR champions under the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format that was implemented in 2014. And they also were both first-time Sprint Cup champs in 2014 (Harvick) and 2015 (Busch).
As we prepare for the start of the 2016 Sprint Cup season, could we be talking about a third consecutive first-time champion about 10 months from now?
Sure, there are plenty of drivers who have not won a Cup crown yet, including Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon, AJ Allmendinger, Casey Mears, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick and Trevor Bayne (at least those are the drivers who finished in the top 30 in 2015 who still have yet to join the NASCAR Sprint Cup champions club).
Wait, there’s one glaring omission there, right? Yes, but it was by design—and it’s the main focus of this exercise.
Of all the still-to-be first-time champs, the one driver I think has the best chance to finally do it—and we’re talking since he was a rookie in 2000—is Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior is in the best place in his life right now. He’s engaged, will be married after this coming season, is very secure at Hendrick Motorsports, has been voted by the fans as Most Popular Driver for the last 13 years, and for the last few years has been about as close to being a solid and regular championship contender as he’s ever been.
Harvick had to leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 seasons to win his first championship, not coincidentally, in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Kyle Busch had to undergo tremendous pain and recovery after suffering a broken right leg and fractured left foot in a horrible crash in last year’s season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona.
Other drivers may have needed a year or more to return behind the wheel, but the younger Busch brother needed all of 13 weeks (and 11 missed races) to return to racing.
And then, in a storyline that Hollywood likely would never imagine, Busch not only qualified for the Chase, he roared through the 10-race playoff and emerged as the series champion for the first time ever (that’s not including his championship in the Xfinity Series).
Earnhardt won back-to-back Xfinity championships in 1998 and 1999, but since moving to the Sprint Cup ranks in 2000, Earnhardt has been shut out each successive year.
And now, with his turning 42 later this year, there almost seems to be a sense of urgency that if Junior is ever going to be a Sprint Cup champion, 2016 (and maybe 2017) has to be THE year.
Any further out and he’ll likely fall short as his skills slowly start to diminish with age. One need look no further than 44-year-old Tony Stewart to affirm that.
That’s why it’s crucial Earnhardt continues the trend of a first-time winner in the Chase for the third straight season—because this could potentially be his last best chance to earn the championship his long-suffering fans have hoped and lamented over for a decade-and-a-half.
There’s another element to Junior’s championship hopes.
Don’t you find an irony in the fact that in the last two seasons, we’ve had a total of six drivers who reached the championship round as first-time title wannabes?
Let’s do the math:
In 2014, all four finalists had never won a Sprint Cup championship in their careers—Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
In 2015, two of the four finalists had won prior Sprint Cup championships (Harvick and Jeff Gordon), while the other two were still looking for their first (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.).
That means over the first two seasons of the new format, 75 percent of those drivers who reached the final round were aspiring first-time champs.
And in turn, what happened to all the former past champions? If anyone would likely be favored to win the championship under the new format, surely it would be a past champion, right?
Nope. Instead, we had a first-timer in each of the first two seasons under the new format.
What happened to Jimmie Johnson? Brad Keselowski? Tony Stewart? Matt Kenseth? Kurt Busch?
That’s five drivers with a grand total of 12 championships between them. And yet they all failed to reach the final round.
That brings me back to Earnhardt.
While making it through the first three rounds of the Chase is a big crap shoot, of all the first-time champ wannabes that are still out there, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt has perhaps the best shot. If he wins, he would be joining Harvick and Kyle Busch to extend what some might think is nothing more than a coincidental streak to three in a row in 2016.
Sometimes, there’s something to number-crunching in NASCAR. And with Earnhardt, it’s time for him to crunch his opponents and win it all in 2016.
As much as we hate to say it, 2016 is potentially now or never—if you want to call it his last chance, that’s your prerogative—for Earnhardt and his championship hopes.
In fact, there’s a song that dates back to 1973, one year before Earnhardt was born (1974), that would serve as the perfect theme for why becoming the third straight first-time champion is such a pressing necessity for him:
“We May Never Pass This Way Again.”
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski