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

07/07/2014 8:51 PM

07/07/2014 8:52 PM

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.

Quotable

“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

Standings

Driver Pts. Sts. W T5 T10
1. Jeff Gordon 651 18 1 6 13
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 624 18 2 9 12
3. Jimmie Johnson 596 18 3 6 12
4. Brad Keselowski 586 18 2 8 9
5. Matt Kenseth 580 18 0 6 11
6. Joey Logano 546 18 2 6 9
7. Carl Edwards 543 18 2 4 8
8. Ryan Newman 534 18 0 1 6
9. Kyle Busch 524 18 1 4 7
10. Paul Menard 516 18 0 3 9
11. Kevin Harvick 514 18 2 5 8
12. Clint Bowyer 509 18 0 2 7
13. Austin Dillon 494 18 0 1 2
14. Denny Hamlin 493 17 1 4 6
15. Greg Biffle 490 18 0 2 5
16. Brian Vickers 484 18 0 3 6

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.

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