Junior looking for more wins
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- In a resurgent season where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has raced near the front most of the time, and now with only four races left before the Chase, here's what people really want to know:
Can he win the championship this season? Isn't that what really matters at this point?
Earnhardt is back at his happy place this weekend. He could use a happy moment after the past two races, which dropped him from the season points leader to fourth in the standings, not that it matters once the Chase begins.
The super-fast 2-mile oval in the lovely Irish Hills of Michigan is the place where Earnhardt's four-year winless streak finally ended two months ago. Michigan International Speedway also happens to be the place where he had last won, in 2008.
Earnhardt admits the June victory did wonders for him, crew chief Steve Letarte and the entire No. 88 Chevy team.
"We wanted to get over that hurdle," Earnhardt said Friday. "It does a lot to reassure you that your team can win. If we still were winless, we would feel snakebit or cursed. It might have messed with us mentally."
Can he win here again Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN)? Sure he can, but that's not really the question most fans are asking now.
He already has proved he can win a race again, getting countless critics off his back. But has this season shown he has a legitimate shot at the title?
"To me, Dale has been really focused and serious this whole season," said Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne. "I haven't always been this close to him, but we've always been friends, and he is as passionate about his racing as I have ever seen him.
"As consistent as [Earnhardt and the 88 team] have been this year and the confidence they have now, I can see them running well throughout the Chase and having a chance to win it."
If I'm picking a three-driver fantasy team for the Chase, Earnhardt wouldn't make my list at this point. I'd go with Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart. If the Chase started today, Johnson would be the clear favorite. He leads the standings and has three victories.
But Earnhardt's team is housed in the same Hendrick Motorsports building as Johnson's No. 48 crew. They all work together. So does Johnson see Earnhardt as a man who can challenge him in the Chase?
"I do," Johnson said Friday. "Absolutely, he's a threat. From what I have seen with Steve and Junior and how consistent they've been, they are real close to getting on a hot streak of victories."
And that's the key, in Johnson's view.
"I think in the Chase, you clearly need to win races," Johnson said. "Tony won half the [Chase] races last year. Yes, you need to be consistent, yes, you need to earn points, but at the end of the day, you need to win races."
But, if you're in, you can win -- a theory I didn't really believe until Stewart came out of nowhere last season to win the title.
The non-Earnhardt fans out there, or those of you who love to say how overrated he is, probably are rolling their eyes at talk of his title chances, saying, "Who cares?"
If you care about NASCAR, you should care. Nothing anyone can say, do or even dream would mean more to the sport than Earnhardt winning the championship. He is the most popular and best-known driver the sport has. Bringing the Earnhardt name another title (adding to the seven his father won) would bring enormous media attention.
Another win at Michigan on Sunday, or elsewhere before the Chase, will help convince some people that Earnhardt can win the championship.
Winning a Cup title in the Chase era requires proving you can win races, not just run up front.
Whether a driver does it in the Chase or before the playoff, only one driver has won the title in the eight Chase years without winning at least five races that season. That was Kurt Busch in the 2004 inaugural Chase when he won three races that season, including one in the Chase.
Tony Stewart won the 2005 Chase without winning a playoff race, but he won five times in the regular season. The average number of victories in a season for a Chase champion is six. Carl Edwards was one point short of winning the 2011 title with only one victory (none in the Chase), but close is for horseshoes.
Earnhardt has consistently raced near the front this season. He was the only driver who had completed every lap until his transmission failed two weeks ago at Pocono. He surprisingly was headed toward a good road course finish at Watkins Glen last weekend before spinning near the end of the race.
It was nice being the points leader for a couple of weeks, but it's false glory, since the Chase is seeded by regular-season victories.
NASCAR finally has a system in which winning matters. Mathematically speaking, a driver doesn't have to win to earn the title. But Chase history tells us winners are the ones who claim the Sprint Cup.
The odds are strong that the season champion is a guy who won some races. Six of the past seven Chase champions were either first or second in total victories that season. Johnson was third in 2008, but he won seven times.
So what it boils down to is this: Can Earnhardt transform his consistency this season into winning a few more races?
"We want to win more races and get those bonus points before Chicago [the Chase opener]," Earnhardt said. "We would like to win at least one more before the Chase, but if the wins wait and come in the Chase, I'm OK with that, too. We have run so strong this year, but we are a little shy in the win column for how we've performed throughout the year."
Obviously, Earnhardt can win here Sunday. He was dominant in the June race on the new pavement, leading 95 of 200 laps. But Earnhardt liked the old surface better.
"The track has always been fun for me," Earnhardt said. "It's really wide, and up until they repaved it, you used the whole racetrack in the corner. That's perfect. You can't ask for any better situation than when cars go through the corner and everybody is sort of using a different line. That's what you want.
"I think over time the surface will age and we'll get back to widening it up quite a bit. It has the characteristics, as far as the way the corners are banked and the way the corners are laid out, to widen back out again and be the great racetrack it's always been. So I really enjoy it. Even had I not won any races there, it's just a really fun track."
One note: No driver has won the championship when he swept the races at Michigan. If I'm Junior, I'm not too worried about that little stat. The last driver to sweep here was Bobby Labonte in 1995, long before the Chase began.
Cup driver Matt Kenseth said he wasn't the least bit surprised when Earnhardt won in June.
"You could see it coming," Kenseth said Friday. "All year he just seemed much more confident. But [finally winning again] had to be a relief."
Earnhardt has won at five of the 10 Chase tracks -- Chicago, Dover, Talladega, Texas and Phoenix. He also has won at all four of the tracks remaining before the Chase starts -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.
Clearly, he can win at most of the remaining tracks. If he does win again at one or two of these places, the championship hype will grow.
And those top three on my Chase fantasy team might need an adjustment.