NASCAR: Top 6 Remaining Hurdles Dale Earnhardt Jr. Faces to Make the Chase
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the midst of his best season since 2008, the year he joined Hendrick Motorsports. That year, he won one race while finishing second in the regular season standings. He finished the season with a pole, 10 Top 5s and 17 Top 10s.
Since that year, he's missed the Chase in 2009 and 2010 while finishing 25th and 21st in the standings, the worst two years of his career.
Earnhardt has had a bit of a resurgence in 2011, already equaling his Top 5 and topping his Top 10 totals from a year ago.
He currently occupies ninth place in the standings, precariously perched on the edge of the Chase zone.
A couple of weeks ago, Junior passed a major hurdle by getting his first Top 15 at Watkins Glen in six years, but there are additional challenges to come if Dale Jr. hopes to make the Chase for the first time in three seasons.
Zero Wins in 2011
Currently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is safely inside the Top 10 in the standings, in line for an automatic bid to the Chase regardless of whether or not he's won a race this year.
But if Junior should happen to fall out of the Top 10 in the standings—and both 11th-place Clint Bowyer and 12th-place Brad Keselowski are rapidly closing in on the top 10—he won't be eligible to receive a wild card, since he hasn't won a race in 2011 (or 2010 or 2009 for that matter, but that's another story).
There's reason to hope Junior can win before the end of the year, but time is quickly running out if he's to do it before the Chase begins and solidify his case for a Chase bid.
Bristol Motor Speedway
Wait a minute, you say. Bristol, a challenge for Junior? Isn't Bristol his best track, with an average finish of just over 11th?
Yep. But it will still be a challenge for Junior, and not just because the Bristol night race is generally one of the craziest races on the NASCAR schedule. Junior does a fine job taking care of his equipment, but there is one thing Junior needs to watch out for at Bristol, and it happens before the drop of the green flag.
For Dale Jr. in recent years, qualifying has been a major problem at Bristol. It's hard to work your way through traffic and put yourself in position to contend for a win, which is what would do the most good for Junior's Chase chances.
The fact that Junior hasn't qualified better than 15th at Bristol since 2003 is a big part of the reason why he hasn't led a single lap at the track since 2007, and just 36 since his lone Bristol win in 2004. In addition, when you're in the middle of the pack at Bristol, you're at the mercy of other drivers, no matter how good your car is.
Junior needs to step up his qualifying effort at Bristol this Sunday or he'll be putting himself at the risk of falling victim to another driver's error, while also kissing any chance of victory goodbye.
No. 88 Car
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been an average driver at best since switching rides before the 2008 season. For a variety of reasons, he hasn't experienced the success many predicted he would find by moving to NASCAR's top team, Hendrick Motorsports.
Driving the No. 8 Budweiser for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, Dale Jr. scored 17 Cup wins in 291 starts from 1999 to 2007. In 129 starts with the No. 88 team since moving to HMS, Earnhardt has just one victory.
Junior's struggles go beyond the dearth of race wins. In his seven full seasons with DEI, he finished in the Top 5 in the standings three times with high of third and low of 19th. In his first three seasons with HMS, Junior's best finish has been 12th in 2008. He finished 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010.
Junior is obviously doing better this year, but the No. 88 team will have to overcome the disappointments of its past in order to succeed this season.
Racing Not to Lose
One of the things I hate most about football is when a team has a small lead late in the game and goes into "prevent defense" mode. The predictable end is that they give up several consecutive medium-length plays and end up losing the game.
It appears that Earnhardt is doing something similar right now. Despite doing a good job of finishing races, he's not getting top results.
After a 15-race stretch where Earnhardt had just one finish worse than 14th, the last nine races have been an entirely different story. Junior has finished better than 14th just once during that span, a ninth-place result at Pocono.
Clint Bowyer is knocking on the door to the Top 10, and with three races before the Chase, is just 30 points behind Dale Jr.
If Junior wants to make the Chase, he needs to pick up the pace and start running up front again.
Richmond International Raceway
This might surprise some people, but Richmond (the last race before the Chase field is set) could actually be a liability for Junior and the No. 88 team in their fight to make the Chase.
After all, three of Junior's 18 career wins have come at the 0.75 mile short track and he owns a career average finish of 14.33 there.
But consider these stats.
Since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has just one Top 10 finish at the track. He's finished 19th or worse in his last five Richmond starts without a single lap led. In that time, he's started inside the Top 15 only a single time.
Unless Junior can improve on his qualifying and get a Top 10 finish, it's possible that Clint Bowyer could pass him in the standings on the very eve of the Chase.
Bowyer has been spectacular at Richmond, with just one finish outside the Top 12 in the last 11 Richmond events. He finished sixth there in the spring and even won a race there in 2008.
Junior had better watch out.
It's now been three years since Junior made the Chase, and the expectation that he will make it and contend for the Sprint Cup title is no longer there.
Without firm expectations of making the Chase, it's too easy to become resigned to missing it yet again, or at least to have an attitude of "here we go again."
At the beginning of the year, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte were brimming with confidence, optimistic that this could be the year Junior turned back into the driver he once was.
But that confidence has turned into a growing malaise, and Junior's stagnation in the standings is all too reminiscent of his struggles over the past few seasons.
I'm not saying I don't think Junior will make the Chase, but it's far from a slam dunk at this point. With three races to go before the Chase field is set, it isn't quite safe for Junior Nation to start celebrating yet.