Earnhardt Jr. has it figured out, again

BY Larry McReynolds • April 4, 2011

There’s no doubt that Junior Nation was thrilled by how close Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to winning Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

I think you have to put it into perspective considering where that program has been the past two or three years. You’ll see that they have come a long way.

Sunday marked Earnhardt Jr.'s fifth consecutive top-12 finish after the crash at Daytona International Speedway in the season opener.

You can’t get greedy. You have to remember where you were at the end of last year and realize it is simply a building process. Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports team are really getting closer and closer. Maybe this weekend will be the place where it all comes together.

Texas Motor Speedway, where the series races Saturday night, is the site of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s very first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory — 11 years ago during his first full season on the circuit. On top of that, everyone knows we go to his favorite track, Talladega Superspeedway, in two weeks.

So, yes, they came so close Sunday to getting that win, but they have to feel pretty darn good about where their program is right now.

We all know that owner Rick Hendrick shuffled three of his four crew chiefs and teams during the offseason. If you want to look at the results, simply look at Martinsville on Sunday. His teams finished second, fifth, 10th and 11th. Actually, that 11th-place finish would have been better if not for a late-race pit-road speeding penalty.

Sure, Hendrick Motorsports has won the past five NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. That being said, it is much stronger as an organization across the board than where it ended the 2010 season.

Kevin Harvick became this year’s first repeat winner. He and his No. 29 team didn’t qualify well, and they were pitting a lot during the early stages of the race. They just had to pit a lot because they weren’t very good. This was just a typical Harvick type of race.

You can never count Harvick out of the picture until the checkered flag falls. He did the same thing Saturday in the Martinsville Speedway Truck race.

And every chance they got Sunday, they worked on that race car. We saw the strength of that Richard Childress Racing team throughout the entire 2010 season. They won three races and led the points the majority of the first 26 races last year.

Even though they didn’t win the championship last year, take a look at how strong they were during the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Of the 10 Chase races, they had nine top-10 finishes. They had an unbelievable Chase, but Denny Hamlin and eventual winner Jimmie Johnson were just that much stronger.

We all expect the No. 29 camp to make the Chase by being in the top 10 in points after the 26th race of the season, at Richmond International Raceway in September. If, for whatever reason they stumble now with two wins in their pocket, they have to feel pretty comfortable they are still in via one of the two wild-card slots.

They left Daytona with only three points. Now, thanks to two wins, three top fives and four top 10s, they are already in the top five in points. Like Dale Jr., you can trust Kevin has the race at Talladega Superspeedway in two weeks circled on his calendar.

His team's superspeedway package is phenomenal. Actually, they are becoming one of those select teams where you can say they are not weak at any track.

So we’ve now had six races and six unbelievable stand-on-your-feet-screaming type of finishes.

The weather Sunday was simply unbelievable. Actually, you might say Mother Nature has been our biggest race fan so far this year. The other thing I was thrilled about was the walk-up traffic to the ticket booth Sunday. The ticket booth lines outside Turn 4 on Sunday morning when I went by were all the way up the street, as far as the eye could see.

Our sport has so much momentum right now. We can’t let up. We have to keep giving the fans what they want.


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