NASCAR midseason report: Dale Earnhardt Jr. set up well for shot at title

Posted Monday, Jul. 07, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
More information

Drivers to watch

Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. is driving as well as he ever has in making his best case to win a first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. At the halfway point, he is in as good a position as any driver. But there are others who have an eye on the title.

Jeff Gordon: Points leader might call it a career if he can win a fifth title.

Jimmie Johnson: He’d join the NASCAR gods with a seventh title.

Kevin Harvick: Bad luck prevented a third, maybe fourth, victory in the first half.

Carl Edwards: Four top 5s, 2 wins while whispers persist about future at Roush.

Matt Kenseth: Runner-up a year ago appears poised to emerge.

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems to have put aside the burdens of the impossible expectations associated with his name and become his own man, one who is doing all the things he needs to do to be a legitimate contender for his first title on NASCAR’s top circuit.

Sprint Cup observers seem to agree that a more mature Junior has grown mentally into a top-tier performer.

NASCAR’s most popular driver has clinched a spot in the Chase with two victories, including the circuit’s premier event, the Daytona 500.

“I think it affected him a lot more than we knew,” said TNT analyst Kyle Petty, referring to Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. “I think he’s come out the other side of it. He’s having a phenomenal year and has a shot at the championship.

“He’s in a good place right now.”

Earnhardt’s No. 88 sits in second in the series points standings behind Jeff Gordon and in front of defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

In February, Earnhardt edged Denny Hamlin for his second career triumph at the Daytona 500. He captured the Pocono 400 last month, marking his first season with more than one win since 2004.

“For any team, it’s hard to get that competitive to where you can win races,” Earnhardt said after the Pocono win. “We’ve been fast every week. We kind of started that around the middle of last year, toward the end of last year.

“I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we’re certainly at our highest ceiling. We’re doing some of our best work certainly right now.”

Earnhardt’s team is also racing with extra incentive to win for crew chief Steve Letarte, who is leaving after this season to become a television analyst.

“We’re still not the best team. We can always improve, and there’s areas where we can improve.”

Chase changes

The AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway will be among three races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup “Eliminator Round,” in which eight drivers still will be in contention.

Sprint Cup officials changed the format for the Chase before the season, putting more emphasis on victories and creating a playoff that the novice race fan can understand.

Season winners automatically earn a berth in the Chase, which has been expanded to 16 drivers. Points are reset after the regular season, and drivers are eliminated as the Chase progresses, culminating in a final four at the season finale at Homestead, Fla.

“I think we can all see the benefits of changing the winning importance, and it in fact has changed the racing on the track,” NASCAR CEO Brian France said. “There’s no question about it. The drivers are telling us that. They’re taking different kinds of chances. They’re going for wins when they would have played it safe otherwise.”

Aligning forces

Monday’s announcement of the formation of the Race Team Alliance has sparked a closer look from those at the highest points of NASCAR’s hierarchy.

Nine of NASCAR’s most prestigious teams formed an affiliation designed to boost revenue and increase efficiency.

“With the encouragement of NASCAR and the manufacturers, the teams have met in various forms and forums over the years to explore areas of common interest,” said Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing and chairman of the alliance, in a press release. “This simply formalizes what was an informal group. The key word is ‘collaboration.’ We all have vested interests in the success and popularity of stock car racing.”

The idea is to work together to increase revenue and spend more efficiently, whether it is is looking for industry-wide travel partners or collaborating on technical issues.

The alliance’s partners are Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske. Membership is expected to be extended to every team eventually.

NASCAR officials said it had “very few specifics” on the alliance’s structure and purpose.

“NASCAR’s mission, as it has always been, is to create a fair playing field where anyone can come and compete,” said NASCAR Vice President Brett Jewkes in a statement. “Our job is to support and strengthen all of the teams, large and small, across all of our series.”

Gordon’s future?

Of most intrigue regarding Hendrick Motorsports’ first half is Jeff Gordon, who is tops in the Sprint Cup standings and has qualified for the Chase with a victory at the 5-Hour Energy 400. He also has two runner-up finishes, including at the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Before the season, he hinted this year could be his last especially if he were to win. More recently, he suggested back problems ultimately could drive him from the sport, though those issues have subsided.

Rookie of the year watch

Austin Dillon: Rookie with good genes moving up with two top 10s.

Kyle Larson: Early front-runner with seven top 10s slumping recently.

Justin Allgaier: Seeking to crack first top 10.

Telling number

6 Combined victories for Hendrick Motorsports triumvirate Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, 1-2-3 in the series points standings through the midway point of the season.


“All they’re asking us to do is exploit it and push it. If somebody goes faster than us and we find out they’re a pound lower on the left, then we’ll all go a pound lower. That’s just speed.”

— Jeff Gordon during race week at the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on the need for NASCAR to change policy and regulate the air pressure on the left front side as the governing body does the right side


1. Jeff Gordon651181613
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.624182912
3. Jimmie Johnson596183612
4. Brad Keselowski58618289
5. Matt Kenseth580180611
6. Joey Logano54618269
7. Carl Edwards54318248
8. Ryan Newman53418016
9. Kyle Busch52418147
10. Paul Menard51618039
11. Kevin Harvick51418258
12. Clint Bowyer50918027
13. Austin Dillon49418012
14. Denny Hamlin49317146
15. Greg Biffle49018025
16. Brian Vickers48418036

Key dates

Next race: noon Sunday, Loudon, N.H.

Chase begins: 1 p.m. Sept. 14, Chicago

Chase race at TMS: 2 p.m. Nov. 2

Season finale: 2 p.m. Nov. 16, Homestead, Fla.

Looking for comments?

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?

Friday, November 28Full Scoreboard
No games today
Full Scoreboard
Friday, November 28Full Scoreboard
Chicago «109Final | Box
Golden State 11/28 7:00 PM ET
Charlotte TV: CSN-BA, SPSO
New Orleans 11/28 7:30 PM ET
Atlanta TV: FSN-NO, SPSO
Milwaukee 11/28 7:30 PM ET
Dallas 11/28 7:30 PM ET
Toronto TV: FSN-SW, TSN2
LA Clippers 11/28 8:00 PM ET
Orlando 11/28 8:00 PM ET
Indiana TV: FSN-FL, FSN-IN
New York 11/28 8:00 PM ET
Oklahoma City TV: MSG, FSN-OK
Sacramento 11/28 8:30 PM ET
San Antonio TV: CSN-CA, FSN-SW
Phoenix 11/28 9:00 PM ET
Denver TV: FSN-AZ, Altitude
Memphis 11/28 10:00 PM ET
Portland TV: SPSO, CSN-NW
Minnesota 11/28 10:30 PM ET
Full Scoreboard
Week 13Full Scoreboard
Chicago17Final | Box
Detroit «34Gridiron Replay
Philadelphia «33Final | Box
Dallas10Gridiron Replay
Seattle «19Final | Box
San Francisco3Gridiron Replay
San Diego 1:00 PM ET
Baltimore TV: CBS
Cleveland 1:00 PM ET
Buffalo TV: CBS
Tennessee 1:00 PM ET
Houston TV: CBS
Washington 1:00 PM ET
Indianapolis TV: FOX
NY Giants 1:00 PM ET
Jacksonville TV: FOX
Carolina 1:00 PM ET
Minnesota TV: FOX
New Orleans 1:00 PM ET
Pittsburgh TV: FOX
Oakland 1:00 PM ET
St. Louis TV: CBS
Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET
Tampa Bay TV: CBS
Arizona 4:05 PM ET
Atlanta TV: FOX
New England 4:25 PM ET
Green Bay TV: CBS
Denver 8:30 PM ET
Kansas City TV: NBC
Miami 8:30 PM ET
Full Scoreboard
Friday, November 28Full Scoreboard
NY Rangers «3Final | Box
Chicago32nd Prd 9:00 | Box
NY Islanders01st Prd 15:09 | Box
Washington0TV: MSG, CSN-DC
Winnipeg 11/28 7:00 PM ET
Boston TV: TVA Sports 2, TSN3, NESN
Montreal 11/28 7:00 PM ET
Buffalo TV: RDS, MSG-BUF
Detroit 11/28 7:00 PM ET
New Jersey TV: FSN-DET, MSG+
Carolina 11/28 7:00 PM ET
Vancouver 11/28 7:00 PM ET
Columbus TV: SN-PAC, FSN-OH
Ottawa 11/28 7:30 PM ET
Florida TV: RDS2, TSN5, FSN-FL
Edmonton 11/28 8:00 PM ET
St. Louis TV: SN-W, FSN-MW
Minnesota 11/28 8:30 PM ET
Dallas TV: FSN-N+, FSN-SW+
Full Scoreboard