Consider this: Dale Earnhardt Jr. … finally, a contender.
Ok, granted, he has made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before, with some fine finishes (third once, fifth three times) in the final series championship standings. But there’s something different about this year, right? Considered for so long by so many as a champion-in-waiting, Earnhardt (No. 88 National Guard/Superman Chevrolet) looks to be assuming the aura of a champion-on-deck.
What a road he has traveled to this spot – two victories in a season for the first time since 2004 and all but assured of making the newly expanded Chase field because of those wins. After years of spotlighted scrutiny and periodic victory droughts that left his legion of fans disappointed, Earnhardt may be ready to deliver a long-awaited, long-expected title in NASCAR’s premier series – or at the very least, come awfully close to doing so.
Earnhardt’s victory at Pocono Raceway this past Sunday sparked a litany of statistics that, collectively, seem hard to believe: First multi-win season in a decade; same number of wins as the previous seven seasons combined; first win at Pocono in 29 starts.
More important than any of those is this: Now with two victories, Earnhardt is guaranteed to be among the top 16 race winners – the most difficult criteria to meet in landing a spot in the Chase. As long as he finishes in the top 30 in driver points after race No. 26 and attempts to qualify for every race, he’s locked into NASCAR’s “playoffs.”
Years ago, race victories, Chase berths and a series championship or three all were predicted to come routinely to a young man with two NASCAR Nationwide Series championships and the consummate NASCAR family heritage, the heir apparent to his late father, seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
That once-bright future, which once was considered derailed by critics – of which there were many, despite Earnhardt’s immense popularity overall – seemingly was only being delayed.
That future is now. Dale Jr. could be approaching a “Sr.” moment.
“It’s elusive, man,” Earnhardt said at Pocono, regarding Sprint Cup success. “I don't worry about [being criticized] as much anymore. I'm turning 40 this year, and the ‘over-rated’ talk is way behind me. That used to bother me when I was younger, but when you get old you don't really care anymore about those kind of things. … I feel like I'm such a lucky guy to have this second opportunity almost to be competitive again, and so I don't really worry about the detractors.”
Biffle Going ‘Home’ To Michigan, Looking For His Own Rebound
In contrast to Earnhardt’s every move being under weekly examination, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Military Salute Ford) has largely toiled under the radar during his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. Even though he advanced to the top rung after winning championships in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, there was never an automatic expectation of Biffle completing an unprecedented sweep.
Thing is, also in contrast to Earnhardt, Biffle actually has come very close to winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, finishing as the series’ runner-up (tied with Carl Edwards) in 2005, only 35 points behind champion Tony Stewart.
In recent seasons, though, Biffle’s own career momentum has slowed slightly, with a total of only three victories form 2011-13 and none so far this season.
Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan could be a breakthrough opportunity for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Roush Industries’ headquarters are located near Michigan International Speedway, in Livonia, Michigan. So, it’s fitting that Roush Fenway Racing has more wins at MIS (13) than any other team in NASCAR history – and four of those have been by Biffle, including two of the last three MIS races.
A win at Michigan, his most prolific track, would virtually lock Biffle into the 2014 Chase, provided he also meets the criteria outlined above.
Keselowski After Second Victory Of Season, First At Michigan
Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Miller Lite Ford) is teed up for a victory in the Quicken Loans 400 in several ways.
He’s back in his home state. Keselowski is from Rochester Hills, approximately 90 miles from MIS, which is located in Brooklyn.
He’s coming two consecutive runner-up finishes, at Dover and Pocono.
Although he has two NASCAR Nationwide Series victories at MIS, Keselowski has not won there in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Winning would be a great thing to celebrate with car owner Roger Penske, who used to own MIS.
And last but certainly not least … winning would be a great way to celebrate Father’s Day with his dad, Bob, a former driver and team owner.
“When I think about racing, and people ask me this question a lot, how I got into racing, and the simple answer is my family,” Keselowski said. “I think if you look through a lot of those that are in the sport, at least at a competitor level, there's some family traditions that involve racing and a lot of them are based around dads. That makes Father's Day, I think, uniquely special to motorsports, but it's special to the whole sports world in that sense, and it's something that I'm very proud of with the relationship I have with my dad, how he got me started in racing, and I know it makes a win or any achievement you have even more special to win on that day.
“Hopefully we can pull that off.”
Larson Turns Heads. … Towards Victory Lane
Are we sure this guy’s a rookie?
Kyle Larson, who tops the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, scored his third top five of the season, this time at Pocono. That matches the top five totals of Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, three of the sport’s top talents. Tenth in points, Larson would earn a Chase spot if the playoffs began today – but they don’t.
So, he now heads to Michigan International Speedway to pad his dynamic rookie resume – and there are plenty of reasons he’ll do just that. And maybe even win.
Though it’ll be his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at two-mile Michigan, Larson did score a runner-up finish there in last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race event.
Also, his performance earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway – the only other two-mile track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule – suggests a strong weekend in MIS. Larson won the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Auto Club Speedway, and followed it up with a thrilling runner-up finish to Kyle Busch in the Sunday NSCS event.
Larson currently leads Austin Dillon in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings by 26 points, 171-145.
Montoya Returns To NASCAR. … For A Bit
Up and down, right and left – it describes Juan Pablo Montoya’s driving wheelhouse, and his seven-year NASCAR career.
There were plenty of highs. The Colombian excited a robust NASCAR fan base, winning twice and making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2009. Of course, there were lows, including championship points finishes outside the top 20 in each of his last three years.
No matter the finish, however, he was never bland – a shoving match with Kevin Harvick at Watkins Glen remains a lasting image.
These days, Montoya competes in the IndyCar Series, and is currently seventh in points with a podium and three top fives.
But he’s back. Montoya will run the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske this weekend at Michigan International Speedway as part of a two-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. He’ll also race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July.
In 14 races at Michigan, Montoya scored three top-10 finishes.
There’s one factor that may play into Montoya’s hands – speed, something he encounters in abundance while driving in open wheel. Michigan’s Coors Light Pole winning speed has eclipsed the 200 mph mark in three of the last four qualifying sessions – including last August’s record breaking run of 203.949 mph by Joey Logano.