Without Chicago: What might have been for Dale Earnhardt Jr
While he was a step off of Jimmie Johnson's pace, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second once again in Sunday's AAA Texas 500. It was his third runner-up finish of the Chase and the second time in the playoffs where he's come in one spot behind his team mate. Despite failing to win a race in 2013, Earnhardt has run among the leaders all year long. Without an unfortunate engine failure in Chicago, Dale would be in third place and still a legitimate challenger for the Sprint Cup title. For Junior Nation, the question will long be what might have been had the rains never fell in Chicagoland.
Dale Earnhardt Jr's post-race comments at Texas
The Chase opener at Chicago was a disaster for NASCAR in almost every sense of the word. After a week spent debating the events at Richmond, the series desperately needed a great on-track product to remind fans why they follow stock car racing in the first place. Instead, the green flag was delayed by rain for 90 minutes and again for over five hours after running a little over 100 laps. In both cases, the delays were lengthened by the pre-weekend disappearance of NASCAR's vaunted Air Titan track drying system (NASCAR said the equipment was not available because the track hadn't budgeted for it, despite France family-controlled ISC owning the track).
The action finally resumed after 10pm Eastern time on ESPN2, going head-to-head with the end of a Sunday Night Football broadcast on NBC. The racing itself was fairly typical of all intermediate track action, short spurts of restart excitement followed by longer periods of single file racing. The cars, having sat on the track throughout the rain delay, suffered from both the moisture and from the higher RPMs generated by an unanticipated night race. Seven cars retired due to engine failure after the delay including chasers Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr (by comparison three cars dropped out of Sunday's race after lap 100 due to engine failure). For them, the Chase was over before it ever began.
But what if the Chicago race never happened? What if the rains didn't stop and as a result the Chicago race had to be postponed until after Homestead and NASCAR's Chase still had three races yet to go? A look at the results since New Hampshire and points earned would put Dale Earnhardt Jr. squarely a part of the championship hunt.
Since New Hampshire, only Jimmie Johnson at 4.86 has a higher average finish than Junior's 6.14. Thanks to win and laps led bonuses, his 270 points earned is third behind Johnson's 290 and Kenseth's 272. He is tied with Johnson with six top ten finishes over those seven races (Kenseth and Harvick both have five). His lowest finish over the last seven Chase races is a fifteenth place run at Charlotte, where Earnhardt led 19 laps and thought he had a top-five car before an overheating car and unexplained tightness caught him a lap down when the checkered flag flew.
From a points perspective, the lack of wins during the regular season (and overall, to be fair) still would hurt Junior's Chase standing. With 12 and 15 bonus points respectively, Johnson and Kenseth would still be ahead of Earnhardt. Removing Chicago from the results, Johnson would lead the points after Texas with a total of 2302 points. Kenseth, losing the win and win bonus from Chicago, would be 15 points behind. Earnhardt would sit third 32 points back- still a challenge, but not the insurmountable 62 point deficit he now has. He also has one fewer race to make up the difference.
A 32 point deficit with three races to go is hardly an impossible one. Just a year ago, Brad Keslowski won the title by 39 points after trailing leader Johnson with three races to go. If repeated this year, the 41 point swing over three races would put Earnhardt ahead of the competition with nine points to spare. Of course, he'd need some of the same luck Keselowski had with Johnson faltering at the end. But it's happened in the past and could have happened again this year. And Junior would only need to move up 15 points to pass Kenseth. Would one more Toyota engine failure come as that much of a surprise? A challenge, to be sure. But possible? Absolutely.
It's nearly impossible to a series champion at the Sprint Cup level without race wins and Earnhardt simply doesn't have them this year. It isn't for lack trying, nor for lack of fast cars. He's come up just a few feet short several times this year. He started out the season with two second place finishes (Daytona and Auto Club) in the first five races. Bad breaks wiped out two win-capable cars at Michigan earlier in the year. At Dover's Chase race, Earnhardt led 80 laps but came up second to Johnson once again. Counting Texas, that's three times this season that he's finished right behind team mate and race winner Johnson.
That has to hurt. Earnhardt goes to the track with a fast car that's capable of running up front. He leads laps and has the leader right in front of him or at least within in his sights. Yet when the race ends and the team heads back to the shop they do so with another second place trophy. When they get home, all too often the car that beat them is on the other half of the shop floor. They get to see Johnson's five championship trophies at the door- and the space on the mantle waiting for number six. This isn't Formula 1 and podium finishes, while helpful, aren't seen as a major accomplishment for a championship contender. NASCAR truly lives by Reese Bobby's dictum; if you ain't first, you're last.
Yet without the disaster at Chicago, all of that would merely be fuel for the debate. Earnhardt would still be a part of the championship conversation and likely a major part of ESPN's Chase advertising. No NASCAR driver moves the needle quite like Dale Earnhardt Jr. When he's up front and in contention for the win, people watch. When he goes out early, a large number of his diehard fans switch the race off- particularly with football season upon us. For casual fans, he's one of the few NASCAR drivers they recognize instantly. Even many who don't follow the sport know who Earnhardt is and will give stock car racing a chance if he's on. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, for all the races and championships they've won, do not have that kind of mass appeal.
With Texas behind, NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is a two man race. That's the reality and it isn't going to change. But it's not a bad thing for Dale Earnhardt Jr's fans to take a moment to think about what might have been for NASCAR's most popular driver. If nothing else, his post-Chicago run should silence those who think Junior cannot win a title. The run he's put together is the kind any champion needs to claim the throne. Three second place finishes show that if he is in the running for wins on a regular basis.
If only he could beat that guy on the other side of the garage. What if Hendrick hadn't been able to talk Lowe's into sponsoring a virtual unknown with a mediocre Busch series record? What might have been then? We'll never know.
But you can bet Dale Jr. wonders. And so do many of his fans.