Opinion corner: Little E back on trackIt wasn’t just a victory last Sunday for a driver with a legendary last name. It was a victory for all of us who have been following his career ever since his back-to-back Busch series championships in the late 1990s.
By: Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun
It wasn’t just a victory last Sunday for a driver with a legendary last name. It was a victory for all of us who have been following his career ever since his back-to-back Busch series championships in the late 1990s.
The drought is finally over, and probably like Little E I felt a little weight off my shoulders as well. That evening my mood was content, my dinner tasted better and for the first time in a long time I felt myself excited to watch the rest of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
I actually thought I’d be writing this column long before now. The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a Sprint Cup race was June 15, 2008, befittingly at the very same race track.
At the time I was the managing editor of a 1,600-circulation weekly newspaper roughly 100 miles north of Jamestown, and Junior was in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports after leaving his late father’s race team, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.
It was an exciting time. That is for Junior and NASCAR, not for my stint as an ink-stained wretch on the North Dakota prairie.
I didn’t join The Sun sports staff until August of that year, and my transition here went much smoother than Junior’s transition to NASCAR’s elite stables at Hendrick.
As it turned out, folks in and around Jamestown have been trying to pronounce my last name for four years and Junior still hadn’t collected victory No. 2 with his new team.
The winless streak had stretched to a gaudy 143 races heading into last week. It’s an impressive number, considering it was the sixth-longest winless drought in Sprint Cup history.
How in the world did that happen?
Some say it was talent, which I won’t ever buy. A driver doesn’t win back-to-back Busch (Nationwide) series titles in 1998 and 1999, and then go on to win 17 races in 291 starts in NASCAR’s top series without having talent.
Junior won an unprecedented four straight at Talladega Superspeedway from 2001-03, breaking Buddy Baker’s record of three straight at the track, and there was a moment there where it appeared Little E was just going to keep on winning.
I’m chalking up Junior’s woes at Hendrick Motorsports to a couple of things. The first of which was a lack of chemistry with his own team, and the second of which I blame on old Rick Hendrick himself.
Well, think about it. How is one supposed to keep five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and the sport’s most popular driver — Junior — happy and winning races all at the same time?
It looks great on paper, but if you dig a little a deeper one could almost come up with a recipe for disaster. Jimmie, Jeff and Dale couldn’t each win every week, and for four years Junior was feeling the pressure of living up to the hype of having the best teammates and the best cars underneath him.
He was also pretty low on the totem pole, considering Jimmie’s and Jeff’s past successes. Maybe Rick has finally decided to shift more of his time and resources to Junior?
Just look at Gordon. His season has been an absolute disaster.
At any rate, enter crew chief Steve Letarte, Gordon’s former crew chief, two years ago and things started to turn around in Junior’s No. 88 camp. He made The Chase for the first time since 2008 and his average finish of 23rd place in 2009 had soared to 14.5 in 2011.
So far in 2012, Little E has flat-out dominated. True, his win at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday was just his second in 159 races with Hendrick (19th overall), but it was his 12th top-10 finish in 15 starts in 2012.
That’s impressive, friends.
Those 12 top-10s already match his total from all of last season, and he also has 6 top-fives after having just four last year. Junior’s 218 laps led are the most he’s had since 2008, he’s also the only driver to have completed each lap turned so far this year, and his 5.393-second margin of victory over second-place finisher Tony Stewart on Sunday is what folks in the business describe as, you might have guessed it, domination.
For the first time since his six-win season in 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is once again a bona fide contender for the Sprint Cup title. Junior currently sits four points behind Matt Kenseth for the Sprint Cup series’ points lead with 561 markers, and nobody in the sport is currently hotter.
The only thing that might cool of Junior just a tad, however, is the 10-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway in California this weekend. The series takes to the road course on Sunday, where Junior has failed to record a top 10 in 12 career starts.
Junior has led just nine laps on the winding road course, and his average finish at Sonoma is a lackluster 22.2. His best finish there is 11th, which he has accomplished three times.
But I’m a believer in momentum, and with the wave Junior’s riding right now I wouldn’t count him out. Realistically, another top 10 would be a victory in itself and his viability as a championship contender wouldn’t waver in the least.
It appears the personnel, the equipment and the chemistry are all finally in place for Earnhardt at Hendrick, and the excuses have been replaced with results.
That doesn’t bode well for the other 42 drivers on the track, but it does for my dinner. Maybe I’ll go buy a grill?
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at email@example.com