Seven races into the season, Dale Earnhardt Jr looks to be a legitimate contender for the Chase, and he seems to be running better than he ever has since he moved to Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season.
He sits sixth in points, with one top 5 and four top 10s, including a runner-up finish at Martinsville Speedway after he lost the lead to Kevin Harvick with four laps to go. His worst finish this season came in the Daytona 500 when he was involved in an accident during a green-white-checkered finish.
There is no doubt that Earnhardt Jr is running better than he has been lately. But, just how well is he running compared to his previous seasons with HMS? Is this his best year? Let’s take a look.
To start our comparison, we must consider that the Sprint Cup Series schedule has changed since 2008. From 2008 to 2010, the first seven races were run at Daytona, Fontana, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville, and Texas. The first seven races this season were Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, Fontana, Martinsville, and Texas. For our comparison, we will look at the seven tracks at which races have already been run this season.
This season, Earnhardt Jr has an average finish of 10.9. In 2008, Earnhardt Jr’s first season with HMS, he had an average finish of 10.1 after the first seven races, but at the seven tracks already run, his average is 11.6. In 2009 and 2010, his average finishes at these tracks were 21.3 and 13.1, respectively. That means his average finish this year is better than his previous years with Hendrick.
In 2008, Earnhardt Jr was slightly better than this season in terms of top 5s and top 10s. In 2008 he had two top 5s and five top 10s at these seven tracks, compared with one top 5 and four top 10s this season. He had one top 5 and three top 10s at these seven tracks in 2010, so statistically, there doesn’t seem to be a big difference between 2010 and 2011 in terms of top 5s and top 10s.
The biggest difference between Earnhardt Jr’s statistics this season and seasons prior is that his worst finish this season (24th) is much better than his worst finish at these tracks in his previous seasons with HMS: 40th at Fontana in 2008, 39th at Fontana in 2009, and 32nd at Fontana in 2010.
While you can say Earnhardt Jr is running better this season, it’s hard to argue that it is his best season (up to this point) with Hendrick because he had more top 5s and top 10s in 2008. Still, this season he is much more consistent, and he has been avoiding bad finishes. The team also has been able to take an ill-handling car and make it, at the very least, manageable. Much of the credit should go to the new crew chief of the No. 88 team, Steve Letarte.