Dale Earnhardt Jr. builds Sprint Cup momentum as first half closes

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 04, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Second-half storylines

Matt Kenseth's push. Matt Kenseth, the Daytona 500 winner and a former Sprint Cup champion, finds himself out of the No. 17 at the end of the year. He'll have no trouble lining up a new ride. It'll be at Joe Gibbs Racing, more than likely. But he's got the potential to win a championship again -- in lame-duck fashion.

Tony Stewart roller coaster. It's been a wildly inconsistent year for the reigning Sprint Cup champion. He's won twice. He's been out of the top 20 six times. He's been top-3 seven times. But his average finish of 12.8 is right in line with last year's 12.0 and his career of 12.6. Plus, everybody knows he gets going late. Who can forget how he closed last year?

Jeff Gordon's slide. The driver of the Hendrick Motorsports' No. 24 has the third-most victories all-time in Sprint Cup. But right now, he's one of the sport's unluckiest drivers. Or so it seems. His cars have been fast but fragile. He and his team are off the mark. When that's the case, bad luck finds you. And right now, as Gordon approaches his 41st birthday in August, it is a bad time to have the worst year of your career.

The Kurt Busch makeover. The third-place finish at Sonoma two weeks ago helped. It won back some respect in the garage for the hot-headed Busch, whose threat to a reporter two weeks earlier cost him a week's suspension. Busch is in the Siberia of underfunded Phoenix Racing because of his temper. If he can continue to show he can race, he can make it back to a top-flight ride.

Skirt changes. We're talking about the part of the car between the front and rear tires that is closest to the ground. It's now supposed to be at least 41/2 inches off the track on the right side and at least 5 inches on the left, up from 3 inches at the start of the year. The idea is to take downforce off, and make the cars tougher to drive. Fine by the drivers. Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "I like the cars to be sliding around, slick, and up top of the track and difficult to drive."

By the numbers

4Place in the standings for Greg Biffle, his lowest spot in the standings all year.

7Top-10s for Brad Keselowski, the fewest among the top 12 in the point standings.

30Years since a driver has swept the Daytona races in a single year. Matt Kenseth gets his chance this weekend.

382Laps led for Kyle Busch, which has him on track for less than 1,000. He's led 1,000 or more for four consecutive years.

Chase standings

Driver

W's

Back

1. Matt Kenseth

1

--

2. Dale Earnhardt. Jr.

1

-11

3. Jimmie Johnson

2

-23

4. Greg Biffle

1

-25

5. Denny Hamlin

2

-68

6. Kevin Harvick

0

-68

7. Clint Bowyer

1

-76

8. Martin Truex Jr.

0

-77

9. Tony Stewart

2

-88

10. Brad Keselowski

3

-96

Wild Card standings

1. Kyle Busch

1

-138

2. Kasey Kahne

1

-170

3. Ryan Newman

1

-170

4. Joey Logano

1

-170

AAA 500: Nov. 4

Texas Motor Speedway

Drivers to watch

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not only has it been a winning year, it's been a consistent year. He's on a pace for 26 top-10s. His career high is 21.

Jimmie Johnson This is starting to feel like a Jimmie year. In the last five weeks, he's been first, fourth, fifth, fifth and sixth.

Denny Hamlin Outside of a crash and a suspension problem last month, he has an average finish of 8.25, and two wins.

Brad Keselowski With three victories, is the biggest winner in Sprint Cup this season.

Kasey Kahne Crashes at Pocono and Michigan ruined a great spring. But he got back on track at Kentucky. Look out if he gets another win.

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Halfway through the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can say he is a winner.

Can he say it when the second half is over?

That is one of the questions stock car fans will see answered when the back half of the schedule begins. The Sprint Cup series hits its halfway point Saturday with the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the 18th of 36 races.

Will Matt Kenseth win a championship in a lame-duck season?

Is Jimmie Johnson on the way to championship No. 6?

What does the winningest driver of the season, Brad Keselowski, have in store for the second half?

Is somebody going to pull a Tony Stewart?

Last year, the answers came late. Stewart won five of the last 10 races en route to his third championship, and the title wasn't decided until the last lap of the last race.

So even though Stewart and big names such as Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton are down in the point standings, a title run is not out of reach for any of them.

"[We're] a team that's capable of winning a championship," Denny Hamlin said last week after a third-place finish at Kentucky that bumped him from eighth to fifth in the standings. "That's all I can ask for. So it's up to us to get that done from here on out."

But no name will get more attention in the second half than Junior.

He has a win, which he has not been able to say in the previous three seasons.

He is second in the point standings. He is heading to one of his favorite tracks -- Daytona. And he is matched up with a veteran crew chief, Steve Letarte, who seems to have found a way to get the most out of his 37-year-old driver.

"I was going to do everything in my power to give him what he needed to get the job done, because I knew it was inside those walls," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "What we were missing was a coach and a quarterback. We finally got the best coach and quarterback with him, then things started to happen."

The top name in NASCAR, however, is still Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion is driving like a five-time champion. He is poised for the second half. He knows the road map to a title.

"Where I am at, [in third], with a couple wins, we feel we have our bases covered, and we can gamble on things and try to stretch fuel mileage, try two tires, try some stuff at the end of the races that lean more toward offense instead of defending something," Johnson said. "Happy to be where we're at, and hopefully, it leads to a few more wins."

The answers start coming this weekend.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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