|Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a fantastic pair of practice sessions Saturday|
He didn’t do anything special in Friday’s practice session (13th), which was used primarily for a mock-qualifying set-up, and only qualified with the 17th fastest time, but when the race trim package was strapped on Saturday, he was blazing fast. In the early session, he had the second fastest lap (132.406 mph) showing he’s got speed on the short haul, and he also had the fastest 10-consecutive lap average, which shows he should be good on long runs.
During happy hour, Earnhardt Jr. laid down the fastest lap of the day at 133.059 mph, and was also the only driver to top 133 mph.
Usually when a driver doesn’t have much history at a track or is in the middle of a long winless streak, they’ll get notched down a bit in the ratings department here. But practices matters at New Hampshire, and it counts for a lot, even enough to alter a normal rating process. Last season in this race, Denny Hamlin had a similar stout day of Saturday practices and rolled to his second career win there.
Earnhardt Jr. might even take his game as a driver up a notch because of this being a Chase race and knowing he’s got the car to beat. I still find it hard to believe that every driver who comes through Hendrick finds themselves winning immediately, while Junior languishes with solid finishes, but few wins.
The rooting gallery for Junior this week might come from NASCAR and Michael Waltrip Racing, just because a huge moment by Junior in the Chase would surely be a big enough story to make the fans and media forget about the Richmond Chase fiasco.
The top drivers that could beat Junior to finish line are Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Bowyer loves flat tracks and has two wins at New Hampshire. Johnson is a three-time winner and has that ugly stretch of four straight finishes in his rear-view mirror after a quality run at Chicago last week. Kenseth has never won at New Hampshire, but was right up there with Earnhardt Jr. and Bowyer as the most impressive.
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