Why this year is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best chance to win the championship
Racing at the front
Though it might not seem it at first glance, Earnhardt has been running much better than he did last season.
Using loop data from racing-reference.info, we can see that Earnhardt’s average finish is not indicative of how he has run this season. Though his average finish is just 14.7, Earnhardt has run at the front in nearly every race. At midrace, Earnhardt has an average running position of 8.3, nearly two positions higher than the 10.2 average he put up during last year’s regular season. Only Jimmie Johnson (7.4) has a better average than his Hendrick Motorsports teammate this year.
He has been running in the top 10 at the midpoint of 15 of 23 races and has been in the top 20 in every race, the only driver who can say that in 2013.
The loop data also show that Earnhardt has been running in the top 15 in 72.3 percent of the laps he has run this season. Though well behind Johnson (83.2 percent), it is right on par with second-place points runner Clint Bowyer (74.7 percent) and well ahead of third-place Carl Edwards (63 percent).
Beating his teammates
While teammate Jimmie Johnson has been the class of the field, Earnhardt has consistently outperformed Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.
With three races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, both Kahne and Gordon are on the bubble of making the playoffs while Earnhardt sits in seventh place.
Though Kahne has two victories on the season, Earnhardt has been more consistent, recording more top-10 finishes (12 to 10) and a better average finish (14.7 to 16.0), according to racing-reference.info.
Meanwhile, Gordon has had a terrible season by his standards, having been shut out of Victory Lane while recording just five top-five finishes.
The old adage in racing says the only driver you need to beat is your teammate. Earnhardt is beating two of them this year.
Anything can happen in the Chase
It sounds cliche, but anything can happen in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Last year Brad Keselowski was the sixth-place driver in the regular season, but a pair of Chase victories propelled him to the points lead and the championship. The year before, Tony Stewart went winless through the first 26 races and entered the Chase in ninth place before rolling off five victories on his way to a championship.
If Earnhardt can keep running near the front and avoid DNFs, he will remain in the title picture through Homestead. Last year, it looked like Johnson had a lock on the title until a poor pit stop and a mechanical failure knocked him out of the race.
Earnhardt has run well enough to be a legitimate contender for the championship. He’s outperforming two elite teammates while driving for the best team in the NASCAR garage. He has run at the front all season but just hasn’t had the finishes to show for it.
If those finishes come during the final 10 races, Earnhardt may finally be a Sprint Cup champion.