Dale Earnhardt Jr is enjoying a resurgence this season. Thus far, he hasn’t posted a finish worse than 24th, which was the result of a wreck during the Daytona 500, and he sits fourth in points, 36 points ahead of 10th-place.
He also posted a runner-up finish in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, after losing the lead in the closing laps. There’s no doubt he’s running better this season than the previous two seasons.
But, in the last three races, he’s posted finishes of 19th, 14th, and 12th, respectively. While these results are not as bad as they could be, they aren’t going to keep him in the Chase, which is a cause for concern.
Earnhardt Jr is coming up on a statistically tough set of tracks for him, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Infineon Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway, and Watkins Glen International.
At Watkins Glen, he has a career average finish of 22.9. At Indy and Sonoma, he has slightly better averages: 22.2 and 20.5, respectively.
In the stretch of races from the first Pocono race to the race at the Glen, he has an average finish of 17.9. That stretch of races included Pocono, Sonoma, Daytona International Speedway, Loudon, Pocono again, Indy, and the Glen when Earnhardt Jr entered the Sprint Cup series full time in 2000.
In 2001, Chicagoland Speedway was added to that stretch. In 2002, the early race at Michigan International Speedway was moved into that stretch (after the first Pocono race). This year, Kentucky Speedway replaces the Chicago race in that span.
But, it is still a tough stretch for him. In those 96 races, Earnhardt has posted three wins, 17 top 5s, and 31 top 10s. But, he has also posted 38 finishes of 20th or worse and 19 finishes of 30th or worse. In nearly 40% of those races, he finishes 20th or worse. That’s two out of every five races. That simply isn’t going to get it done.
Over his career, Earnhardt Jr has dropped an average of nearly three points positions from the race before Pocono to the end of the season. Only two times in his career has he actually gained positions during that span: in 2001 he climbed from 11th to eighth in the standings, and in 2002 he climbed from 14th to 11th. Every other time, he has dropped at least one position. Even in his best points years (2003, 2004, and 2006); he has dropped an average of two positions from the first Pocono race to the end of the season.
This comparison, however, is not completely accurate, as the Chase was introduced in 2005 and drastically changed the points standings.
Early in his career, Earnhardt Jr either gained points positions or didn’t lose any in the stretch of races between the first Pocono race and the start of the Chase. (For comparison purposes, we used Earnhardt Jr’s points position after the fall Darlington Raceway race in 2000, when the Cup season was 34 races long.) But he has lost at least one points position in six of the last seven seasons over in this stretch. The worst he has dropped is three positions in 2009. To be in good shape to make the Chase, (if his averages hold up and he repeats his worst performance), he would need to go into Pocono no worse than seventh in points.
But, this year may be the first year since 2007 that he could actually gain positions during this stretch. And if he does, it will be due largely to crew chief Steve Letarte.
Letarte took over crew chief duties for Jeff Gordon at the end of 2005. Since 2006, his first full season with the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team, Letarte has helped his team finish in the top 10, two-thirds of the time (30 out of 45 races) in this span. He has also led the No. 24 team to three wins in this stretch of races, though those came in 2006 and 2007.
In 2007, Gordon did not finish worse than ninth over this stretch with Letarte on the pit box. In 2010, Gordon finished in the top 10, seven out of the nine races in this stretch. Five of those finishes were in the top 5.
With results like that, it’s hard to express too much concern for Earnhardt Jr’s Chase chances at this point. It’s highly unlikely, even considering the last three races, that Earnhardt Jr will drop six places in the points. It should also be noted that Earnhardt Jr has never missed the Chase when he is in the top 4 in the points heading into Pocono. If the team can maintain their points position at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, that will leave the No. 88 HMS team in good shape.
And, if Letarte and Earnhardt Jr are firing on all cylinders over this stretch, we could see Earnhardt Jr overcome one of the biggest obstacles to his championship hopes.