Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win on Sunday at Pocono Raceway catapulted him to the top of the Chase Grid Outlook, and if the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup began today, he’d start as the No. 1 seed; which would be a first for the 11-time Most Popular Driver.
Earnhardt has only led the standings during the Chase once in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career; following his third-place finish in the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2004. Unfortunately for Dale Jr. the glory only lasted that one week, he dropped to third in the points the very next weekend after finishing ninth at Dover (Earnhardt would again capture the points lead two weeks later after a win in Talladega, but it was short lived thanks to a mid-week points penalty).
Earnhardt’s three wins put him in a tie with Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for most this season, and would give him nine bonus points to start the Chase. In addition to his three wins, Earnhardt has 10 top fives, 15 top 10s and an average finish of 9.8 this season.
Earnhardt has made the Chase six times in his career (2004, ’06, ’08, ’11, ’12 and ’13), with a best championship finish of fifth (three times: 2004, ’06 and ’13) during the Chase. His best average finish during the Chase was 12.6 in 2004.
But this season has all the makings of a storybook ending. It’s the first season since 2004 that he has won multiple times; including his first sweep of a race track in a single season since 2002 (Talladega). His NASCAR season-to-date driver rating is the third highest in his career this late in the season at 99.9 (the highest season-to-date Driver Rating this late in the season was 2008 at 102.5). And to put a sense of urgency on the season, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, has announced this will be his final season with the team before joining NBC’s broadcast booth.
Five races remain in the regular season and this week the series heads to Watkins Glen International for its second of two road course events on the schedule. Of the five remaining tracks, Watkins Glen will be Earnhardt’s biggest challenge. He has made 14 starts at the Glen posting only two top fives and an average finish 23.2 – his worst on the active schedule.
If Dale Jr. can make it past Watkins Glen unscathed in the points, statistically he could be in the clear sailing to the Chase No. 1 seed; he has won at the remaining four tracks of the regular season – Michigan (2), Bristol (1), Atlanta (1) and Richmond (3).