They say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the modern-day master of the restrictor plate race.
At least, that’s what they said years ago. In droves. All the time. It wasn’t a matter of if Junior won, but when and how.
Nowadays, the reaction has tempered, but the sentiment remains, particularly when the series visits Daytona for the Great American Race (aka the Daytona 500). Little E is now more visible than usual, his name spoken in the broadcast booth as a driver to beat. And it’s not wrong to say that. Earnhardt Jr. does have two Daytona victories, along with six top-three finishes, though he hasn’t actually won at the track in a points race since 2004 (2008 brought a Gatorade Duel victory). Add to that five plate wins at Talladega, and you can see why people point to Junior as number one.
But the fact remains, his last Daytona victory? 2004.
But in reality, the stats tell us a different story as of late. It’s time to crown a new champion of the restrictor plate tracks. What better time than now, less than a week removed from the Daytona 500?
I will not count out Earnhardt, Jr. completely; after all, he’s still one of the best when it comes to getting a good finish out of whatever car he’s in. His average result of 15.5 at the last 20 restrictor plate races is nothing to scoff at. In fact, it’s second best of all active drivers.
But after the Sprint Unlimited, all eyes should be on a new candidate: *Kevin Harvick.*
How fitting it is that Harvick, the successor to Dale Earnhardt, Sr. at Richard Childress Racing, has taken a liking to the restrictor plate format. The transition from No. 3 to No. 29 has not been seamless; hardships in the first two years of his Cup career prevented Harvick from notching even a top-10 finish. But a string of solid results followed, culminating with back-to-back victories at Talladega and Daytona in 2010 and now three Budweiser Shootout/Sprint Unlimited wins in the past five exhibition races. Those results point to larger things to come.
Tell me, who’s been better than Harvick? Who can we look to and say, “OK, yeah, this is a guy or gal to watch?”
No, it’s not *Clint Bowyer*, right now. It just isn’t. He may have the highest average finish in the last 20 restrictor plate races of any active driver (14.05). He may have two wins in that timeframe – same as Harvick. He may have six top-5 results – one more than his former teammate. He may have 10 top-10 finishes – two more than Harvick and more than any other in NASCAR. His starts-to-top-10s ratio in that stretch is 1-to-2.
But he doesn’t fit the bill.
Bowyer scored his best finishes with Richard Childress Racing, same as Harvick. Hell, he was nigh untouchable in his last years with the team. But he is property of Michael Waltrip Racing now. While those Toyotas are no longer slouches in the sport, MWR’s not up to snuff on the restrictor plates. Case in point: neither Bowyer nor teammates Mark Martin and Martin Truex, Jr. could crack the top 15 in qualifying. Practice speeds left much to be desired.
Oh, and Bowyer only managed one top-10 result at a restrictor plate track last year. Martin, one. Truex, none. Boss man Waltrip eked out a ninth (although, in his defense the guy came two turns from a possible upset win at Talladega).
This criticism isn’t to call Clint Bowyer a subpar restrictor plate racer. It’s his team, given its history. Earnhardt Jr.’s dominance early on was due in part to Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s fantastic track record; it was no easy task to make Michael Waltrip a legitimate contender in his later years.
But that’s just it: the _team_ is just as important. And right now, Kevin Harvick resides at Richard Childress Racing, which simply has the superspeedways figured out. Again, lest we forget, it’s where Bowyer became a force to be reckoned with. Even Jeff Burton went four-for-four on top-10 finishes at plate races last year with RCR; he was 2-for-32 everywhere else.
“Hey!” you say. Harvick’s not staying with Childress. He’s going to Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end. Calling Kevin Harvick the current master is premature.
But, take a look at the top of the practice and qualifying charts this past week. I’ll wait. OK, if you don’t want to peek here’s the story: Danica on the pole. Three SHR cars in the top 5. They’re looking good.
In 2014, Harvick moves to one of the few organizations that tend to have something for Childress at these tracks. I even believe that if Kevin Harvick is not your 2013 Daytona 500 champion, Tony Stewart will be.
Oh, that reminds me: *Harvick will win the 2013 Daytona 500.* You saw what I saw Saturday night: a fast car and some ace driving. Assuming the No. 29 car doesn’t get caught in the shuffle toward race’s end, he’ll be coming on those last few laps, eventually pulling ahead of whomever was leading at the time (I’ll go with Greg Biffle) and holding them off for the win.
And unless something drastic happens with either the Childress or Stewart programs in the next few years, get used to his name being the first to pop into your head when the conversation turns to restrictor plate racing. Not Junior. Not Bowyer. Not even Danica.
|Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||15.5||0|
|Matt Kenseth||16.05||3||Tony Stewart||16.67||3|
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