DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been part of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before. Six times to be exact. And he’s had some fine finishes in the final championship standings; third in 2003, which was the year before the Chase was instituted, and fifth-place finishes in ‘04, ’06 and ’13, all under the Chase format.
And now Earnhardt, who has two race victories, is all but assured on being in the Chase again. There’s a growing consensus, however, that there is something different about this season for the 39-year-old. Considered for so long by so many as a champion-in-waiting, Earnhardt has the look of a champion-on-deck. This is a welcomed experience to his millions of fans who have voted him as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver for the last 11 seasons, all the while waiting for him to finally win the championship that his legendary father, the late Dale Earnhardt, won seven times.
Dale Jr., it appears, could be approaching a “Sr.” moment.
Following his victory this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt assessed the long road traveled over the last 14 years. He came to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2000 after winning consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series titles in 1998-99.
“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.”
This week, Earnhardt is looking for a third victory, at a track where he has had success in the past – super-fast, two-mile Michigan International Speedway, site of Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400. Earnhardt won the event at MIS in 2008 and 2012.
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Here’s a quick reiteration of what still must happen for Earnhardt and other three 2014 double-winners (Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano) to qualify for the Chase:
• They must reside in the top 30 of the series standings after the 26th race of the season, at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 6;
• They must attempt to qualify for every one of the season’s first 26 races.
Obviously, the tough part of being “locked in” has been taken care of by those three drivers.
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Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports organization (he is co-owner with his sister Kelley Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick) is trying to win its first NASCAR Nationwide Series championship this season. It’s surprising to say the least, that a championship hasn’t already been won, considering a list of drivers that has included Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick and Mark Martin.
This year, JR Motorsports has a combo that could deliver. The team’s drivers, Regan Smith and Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Chase Elliott have combined to lead the standings the entire 2014 season.
Coming into Saturday’s Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 250 at MIS, Smith leads the NNS points while Elliott is third.
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The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returns to Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis this week, for Saturday night’s Drivin’ For Linemen 200. Gateway has deep roots in the series, hosting races from 1998-2010. During those years, an all-star list of drivers such as Rick Carelli, Greg Biffle, Jack Sprague, Ted Musgrave and Ron Hornaday Jr. visited Gateway’s Victory Lane.
Now a new roster of young stars head to the 1.25-mile track, names like Erik Jones, Jeb Burton, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ben Kennedy.
New names, but the same side-by-side, must-see action that is and always has been a hallmark of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Hornaday is the lone competitor scheduled to race Saturday who has won at the track.