by Ryan Isley
In sports, athletes like to say that they are taking one game – or one race – at a time. While that may seem like a cliché, it just might be accurate when it comes to NASCAR and this week’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. This is the one race of the NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup that could shake up the standings, as the very real possibility – and maybe even probability – of a big wreck looms around every corner.
And it might just be the most important race of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s career. No, Seriously.
This season has been the closest that Earnhardt, Jr. has been to actually winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and when the Chase began, Earnhardt, Jr. was in 7th place, nine points behind the top spot in the standings.
Despite finishes of 8th, 13th and 11th in the first three races of the Chase, he enters this week still in 7th place, but he is now 39 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
While Earnhardt, Jr. has had top-10 finishes this season in four of the last six tracks in the Chase that the series has raced at (there was no race at Homestead), it is at Talladega where he could start a charge to the front if he wants to win his first championship.
If Earnhardt, Jr. is going to get himself back into championship contention, he is going to need to revert back to his old Talladega form of 2001-2004. In the seven-race stretch from the fall race of 2001 through the fall race of 2004, Earnhardt, Jr. won five races and finished second in the other two. That included a streak of three straight wins and four wins in five races.
Unfortunately for Earnhardt, Jr., his success at Talladega – once known as Dale-adega – seemed to disappear after that 2004 season. In his next five races at the superspeedway, his best finish was 15th and he had two finishes of 40th. He finally broke back into the top-10 in the fall race of 2007 with a 7th-place finish but quickly lost that momentum with a 28th-place finish in the spring of 2008.
Earnhardt, Jr. finally seemed to have the track figured out again when he had four straight finishes of 13th or better at Talladega from the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2012 (10-2-11-13).
In the last three races, Earnhardt Jr. has sandwiched two top-10 finishes around a 25th-place finish in the fall race last season. After his second of those top-10 finishes – 9th place this spring – it seems that maybe Earnhardt, Jr. has some of that momentum back that he once had earlier in his career.
Of course winning this weekend at Talladega will not be an easy task for Earnhardt, Jr., as Keselowski is the defending champion at the track following his win in the spring. In fact, seven of the last eight races at Talladega have been won by drivers who are currently in the Chase with Keselowski and Clint Bowyer owning two each and Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson having one win apiece.
Earnhardt, Jr. will also need to finish higher than the other Chase drivers – something he failed to do in the spring despite that 9th-place finish. Three of the drivers ahead of Earnhardt, Jr. in the current standings – Keselowski (won), Kasey Kahne (4th) and Bowyer (6th) all finished better than the driver of the No.88 that day, as did Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. That means of the 12 drivers who ended up making the Chase, Earnhardt, Jr. was just the 6th-highest finisher.
Just like that race at Talladega, Earnhardt, Jr. has good finishes in the first three races of the Chase but he has finished in the rearview mirror of too many other drivers that are also in the Chase. At Chicago, he was the 5th-highest Chase finisher, at New Hampshire, he was the 9th-highest Chase finisher and at Dover, he was the 7th-highest Chase finisher.
Earnhardt, Jr., crew chief Steve Letarte and their entire team know that the No.88 has to start finishing in front of the other cars in the Chase if they want to be hoisting the trophy after the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
If Earnhardt, Jr. can’t get it done this weekend, the last six races of the season may just be preparation for 2013.
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