To say that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having his best season in a long time might just be the understatement of the year. With three wins already this season and his ticket solidly punched for the new “win and you’re in” Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt might actually be having arguably his best season ever in NASCAR.
He started it all off with his second Daytona 500 victory back in February, dominating the last part of the race and impressively holding off all comers in a final “Green-White-Checkered” finish to win the race his dad had a hard time winning. In June, he took advantage of some misfortune by Brad Keselowski to have his first multiple win season since 2004. In August, he proved that win was no fluke with great strategy and a strong car for his third win of the season.
Now the trick will be to carry that success over to the Chase and into his first Sprint Cup Championship.
While winning races is fun and all, at the end of the day, winning championships is what really matters in all sports. While in he has a lot of wins in his own right, there’s a reason that Kyle Busch isn’t considered an all-time great like that of Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty. He hasn’t won a championship, and neither has Junior. Sure, he’s had a lock on the most popular driver award since he came into the series, but that doesn’t mean much. And as he’s gotten older, the pressure to perform and now to win a championship to cement his legacy has grown.
But if this season has shown anything, it’s that this is as good a shot as he’s ever had to do just that. Even before the win at Daytona, Junior was seemingly more laid back and fun than seasons prior when he struggled. Since that win, it’s only gotten better. He’s had a great relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte, and with this being Letarte’s last season as a crew chief, I’m sure Junior would love to hand him one last championship. In addition, he’s joined Twitter, having fun with the drivers and essentially not being the rigid, uptight self of a few seasons ago. Compare interviews from this season to those when he was struggling and you’d think it was a different man and that change should help him come “playoff” time.
Of course, all of this work in the first 26 races could go completely to waste with bad luck in the first week of the Chase, especially with the elimination format this year. Remember last year when he suffered a blown engine in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, essentially eliminating him from contention.
But bad luck aside, Dale Jr. has had an incredible season so far with a remarkable return to form that could help NASCAR grow, especially after the incident involving Tony Stewart a few weeks ago. And if he can carry over his success from the “regular season”, good things may be coming for Junior Nation come November’s race at Homestead.