Sunday really was a phenomenal day of auto racing with the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco in the morning, the 100th Anniversary of the Indy 500 in the afternoon and the 52nd running of NASCAR’s longest race as the evening’s nightcap: the Coca-Cola 600. But even in all the years of three of the most storied races in motorsports there cannot have been many stranger consecutive finishes than the conclusions we witnessed at the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then later that evening in eerily similar circumstances at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In both races the wheelman of the National Guard car (how fitting on Memorial Day weekend when we remember those who have sacrificed so much) led the race at not only the white flag but also exiting turn four with the checkers in sight. For both JR Hildebrand, an IndyCar rookie from Sausalito, CA and a rather more famous name, Dale Earnhardt Jr. from Kannapolis, NC, the race would not end in raucous champagne celebrations in Victory Lane, rather crushing disappointment of being so close and yet so far.
That, though, gentle readers is why we watch the races and you only had to witness the curious mixture of bemusement and unconfined merriment and joy from both Dan Wheldon (running his first race of the Indy Car season) in the 500 and Kevin Harvick and the Budweiser boys in the 600 to know that however you win them it doesn’t matter: you just need to finish first.
Time will tell how the young open wheel rookie — JR Hildebrand — recovers from what was, it seemed, a rookie mistake trying to overtake lapped traffic on the final corner. But for Junior, after the initial spirit-sapping, soul-crushing disappointment of being so close to ending a 104-race winless streak, the most important aspect to note is what a difference a year makes.
In the entire 2010 season Junior picked up just 3 top-5’s and 8 top-10’s; in 2011 he already has 2 top-5’s and 6 top-10’s and there are 24 races still to run. More telling, his average finish is 11th: compared to 18.6 in 2010 and a career average (13 years, 411 races) of 16.8. Said Junior of his seventh place finish: “It was a long race and a really hard race and I haven’t ran good here in a long time. We ran really, really good tonight. Real good and I’m real happy about that. The wins are going to come; we just have to keep working.”
And for a man well versed in what to say to the media, those comments smack of a level confidence in both himself and also his team that we haven’t seen in the sport’s favorite son in quite some time – perhaps not since the 2006 season. He might not be quite back at his best but he’s a strong composite of the Junior that racked up wins and top-10’s with regularity. It’s also a version of Dale Earnhardt Junior that the sport of NASCAR desperately needs. His overwhelming popularity keeps fans tuning in to the race broadcasts and more importantly, putting bums on seats. An Earnhardt that is relevant; an Earnhardt that competes, well, that’s big business. And right now with a third of the season in the books and Junior sitting comfortably in fourth place in the standings, that’s what it looks like we have got.
Much of the credit must go to his amiable and loquacious crew chief: Steve Letarte, who appears to have righted the listing Earnhardt ship. Communication is clearly a key factor and Junior has been able to finish races with much more authority than was evident in the last two years when his car tended to go backwards at the end of races like it was running with an anchor hanging off the tail pipe. This year it’s been the opposite, Sunday’s running out of gas incident notwithstanding, with the #88 car looking racy at the business end of matters. So yes, Sunday was a disappointment but it was always going to be dicey gambling on fuel and both crew chief and driver knew it. And while he might not be a true front runner to win the 2011 Sprint Cup title –- those would be Busch, Edwards, Johnson and Harvick in my humble opinion – Junior is inserting himself into the conversation and not just because he’s so ridiculously popular.
The upcoming stretch of the long schedule is a tricky one for Earnhardt with visits to tracks he tends not to run well, but as things stand he’s a solid 59 points ahead of 11th place driver Greg Biffle. That’s a solid enough margin to play with and if he can continue to run as well as he has, and find solid finishes when he doesn’t quite have the car, he’ll make the Chase for the first time since 2008. “I think they [the fans] are pleased with our efforts and pleased with the results so far this year and I’ll be the first to admit we need more, but this is going in the right direction.” Said Junior after the race. “I felt like a true front-runner tonight. I’ve felt like that several times this season, but Charlotte is a true test. The 600 is a true test of our team and we performed well all night long.”
Now there are plenty more “true tests” to come for Junior and the #88 team, that’s for sure, but with a third of the season in the books, Earnhardt Jr. has genuine reason to believe and positive momentum for what seems like the first time in an awful long while. And that can only be good for the sport.
One final quick point: I really was amused by FOX’s airing of Chad Knaus’s f-bomb on live TV as five-time’s engine expired in the closing stages of the 600. I don’t claim to understand the machinations of a live sports broadcast but I can’t help but feel they didn’t need to cut right to the #48 team radio at that exact moment. I mean what where they expecting — sunshine and flowers?
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