John Harrelson/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr.'s win back in June hasn't been the only highlight of his 2012 season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity is being matched by his production.
He’s No. 1 in both categories headed into Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono. After four years of leaving his legion of fans without a victory to celebrate, Earnhardt found his way back to Victory Lane at Michigan in June and goes to Pocono as the leader in Sprint Cup driver standings.
What has been the key to his turnaround? Consistency is the top factor.
Junior has run an incredible 96 percent of laps on the lead lap this season, the best of any driver. He ranks third in average running position (9.7) after ranking 15th in 2011, and is second in quality passes (1,270) behind Brad Keselowski. (A quality pass is a pass of top-15 car under green.)
Earnhardt is the first driver in Cup history to finish the first 20 races of a season on the lead lap. Dating back to 2011, he has finished 21 straight races on the lead lap, which is tied with Jeff Gordon for the overall series record.
In eight of the past 13 seasons, Earnhardt has averaged fewer than 1,800 miles driven per crash. He’s more than quadrupled that total this season, having been involved in only one accident in 20 races this season. Teammates Gordon (5), Kasey Kahne (5) and Jimmie Johnson (3) have found trouble much more often.
Earnhardt could be winning more if he was stronger at the end of races. He has lost 14 positions this season in the final 10 percent of the race, which ranks 64th out of 69 qualifying drivers.
Although he has not won as often as teammate Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt has been very consistent this season. Compared to last year, he’s cut down the number of finishes outside the top 15 (from 7 in 2011 to two this season). He’s run 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 (ranks third), compared to 57.4 last season (ranked 11th).
As for Pocono, there have been 24 accidents involving 62 drivers (2.6 per accident) since the June 2008 race. Of those 24 accidents, 19 have involved multiple cars. From June 2008 to June 2012, there were 15 straight multi-car accidents at Pocono, the second-most consecutive multi-car accidents at any track since 1990, trailing Talladega's 27.
Pocono is called the "Tricky Triangle" due to three different turns of banking and length, making it almost like a road course. Some believe that Turn 2 (the Tunnel Turn) is the trickiest of the three, but there had been no accidents there since August 2008 before two single-car accidents in June.
With the highest banking coming in Turn 1 (14 degrees) and drivers hitting 200 mph plus on the front stretch, that area of the track leads to the most accidents.
2012 marks the first season of Pocono’s change from 200 laps of 500-mile racing to 160 laps of 400-mile racing. Although the amount of racing has dropped, Pocono’s past will set drivers up to be wrecked at the end of the race. Of 132 total wrecks since 1990, one-third of them have happened in the final quarter of the race.
Earnhardt hasn't won multiple races in a season since 2004. He has an even longer drought going at Pocono, having never won at the track in 25 starts. Charlotte and New Hampshire are the only tracks where Junior has made more starts without a win (26).