With an epic Daytona 500 triumph in the books, it’s on to Phoenix International Raceway for Dale Earnhardt Jr., with plenty of historical fodder indicating a second-straight victory not only is possible but somewhat probable considering the inevitable momentum from winning NASCAR’s biggest event.
Earnhardt’s success at the one-mile PIR oval has been somewhat intermittent but it’s also been memorable; he went to Victory Lane back-to-back in 2003 and ’04 (there was one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race per season there at the time). Also, there’s this recent history: Earnhardt finished fifth and fourth at PIR during his solid 2013 season.
Inevitably, talk started almost immediately Sunday night about another possibility: Earnhardt winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for the first time. Five drivers have won the Daytona 500 and the series title in the same season: Jimmie Johnson (2006, ’13), Jeff Gordon (1997), Richard Petty (1964, ’71, ’74, ’79), Cale Yarborough (1977) and Lee Petty (1959).
Perhaps getting somewhat overlooked is that Earnhardt was being considered a title contender before the first lap was run this year. Such optimism was based mainly on his strong 2013 season when he posted a career-high 22 top 10s, starting with a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and ending with a fifth-place finish in the final series points, Earnhardt’s best result since 2006 – and his best result since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. That followed a several-year slump that seemed particularly puzzling in 2009 and ’10 when Earnhardt finished 25th and 21st in points.
Earnhardt said he is grateful that his organization, starting with Hendrick, “… believed in me, and were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work, regardless of what anybody said, regardless of what the critics were saying, when everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again. I’ve been pretty vindicated, but I’m in a good place now. I feel we’re embarking on a season that could be something really special for me.
“Whether we win the championship or not remains to be seen, obviously. But I had one of my greatest years last year, and I think we can top that this season.”
A statistical footnote going into Phoenix: Since the Daytona 500 became the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ season-opening race in 1982 – a surprising piece of trivia in and of itself – only two drivers have followed a Daytona 500 victory with a win the very next race: Matt Kenseth at Phoenix in 2009 and Jeff Gordon at Rockingham in 1997; Gordon went on to win the series championship that year.