NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle – Earnhardt Jr. is a title contender

The long dry spell from Victory Lane for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been covered ad nauseum for some time. While he’s gone three years without a win, he’s been looking closer than ever during the streak this season. Prior to some bad luck the last two weekends he was averaging a 10th-place finish which has him on the precipice of being a true threat to win the championship this season. There has been discussion for years about the potential for a driver to win a title without winning a race. Wouldn’t it be ironic if NASCAR’s most popular driver were able to claim his first championship without breaking his long winless steak?

Taking a look at the statistics for Jimmie Johnson, obviously the standard bearer for winning titles under the Chase format, his average finish has ranged from 9.7 for the 2006 season to 12.2 in 2010. While that average is for the entire season, and his average in the final 10 races has been closer to seventh over his five year reign, the bottom line is scoring top-10 finishes over the last 10 races will put a driver in the hunt and scoring to- 6 finishes will most certainly assure a championship. While Earnhardt has not put his car in the Winner’s Circle for some time, he’s proven this season that he can finish consistently, and he’s within a couple of spots of averaging the finish he needs to take home the big silver trophy at the end of the season.

One of the main premises of the Chase format was that it would put a premium on winning. It was implemented the year after Matt Kenseth came very close to winning a title without winning a single event during the season. Kenseth took the trophy home after the third race of the season in Las Vegas and that was the only time all year that he was the first to the checkered flag. At the same time Ryan Newman visited Victory Lane eight times during that season, but also had seven DNFs, which prevented him from taking the title. Whether it was in response to those exact circumstances or in an effort to change things up and add some stick and ball type of excitement to the title hunt, the Chase was implemented.

Since the Chase came around the average finish over the last 10 races of the season for the ultimate champion has vacillated from around tenth to fifth. Most seasons if a driver can average just better than a seventh-place finish over the final 10 races he’ll take home the big prize, and that kind of an average is very attainable for Earnhardt, Jr. based on the way he’s been running this season. If he and Steve Letarte can get a few more places out of the car over each of the final 10 races they’ll be right in contention for the title and it would be possible for them to take the ultimate prize home without a win.

The firestorm that would follow such an event would be of epic proportions with the members of Junior Nation obviously being thrilled for their driver while the naysayers and conspiracy theorists would certainly scream foul. The sport would obviously receive a huge boost from Earnhardt taking home the title and, with the continuous struggles to regain the momentum that it has lost over the last few years, that kind of exposure would be enormous, but the debate would certainly taint the accomplishment.

The thing to note about Earnhardt’s run to the finish of the season at this point in time is that he’s building the second best average finish of his career even with his horrible result last weekend at Sonoma. The only season where he’s had a better average finish was in 2004, the first season of the Chase. Earnhardt ended up fifth in points that season, although he would have won the title had he not had an error in judgment at Atlanta which took him out of the event when he was trying to move into the top 3.

There is no question that Earnhardt has shown consistency this season that is close to what will be necessary to take the title at the end of the season. If his team can improve his average finish from the first 14 races to seven from 10, he’ll most certainly be within reach of the top spot when the Homestead race rolls around in November. The odds are, if he is able to take home the title he’ll win at least one race en route to the ultimate prize, but if he doesn’t the discussion and debate will most certainly be deafening.

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