It's Not The Same … Old Junior
NHMS Next On Dale Jr.'s Win List?
It's not as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never been in contention to win a race before. Heck, he won the season-opening Daytona 500 in February and entered this past weekend's race at Pocono Raceway with three runner-up finishes through the first 13 races of the season.
Finding victory lane, however, hasn't been easy for the 11-time winner of NASCAR's "Most Popular Driver" award. After a six-win season in 2004, Junior took the checkers only four times in the last nine seasons - not once getting there more than once in a single season during that stretch.
But that's all changed in 2014. His win at Pocono on Sunday gave him two wins, and while it took a little misfortune for Brad Keselowski (debris on his grille was overheating his engine so he had to let Junior by in hopes that drafting would remove the debris) in the closing laps to make that happen, there weren't many apologies coming from victory lane after exiting the 88.
"You hate to see a guy have to lose a race in a manner like that, but I'm excited that we won," said Earnhardt. "Like I said, that temperature must have been really high because … if it was 270 or 280 he keeps his foot in it and just races it on out. And now, hindsight is a little different, knowing the debris didn't come off the grille and he made it to the end, that can be hard on him and he can beat himself up."
Junior knows just how he feels. Earlier this season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was Earnhardt in the lead but he ran out of gas with a half-lap remaining, handing the race to Keselowski. That's been the way it's gone for Junior, who has had the win in his grasp on more than a half-dozen occasions in the last several years only to watch it slip away.
But this year is different. Luck is starting to find its way into the 88 camp. And the win on Sunday at Pocono, a track Earnhardt had never won at before, was a perfect example of that.
That was the battle cry around the New Hampshire Motor Speedway office today. The Magic Mile has never had Dale Earnhardt Jr. in its victory lane. But after testing here last week, Junior will return to Loudon for the Camping World RV Sales 301 brimming with confidence.
Yet, that isn't the only reason those at NHMS are getting excited about next month's signature Sunday showdown. There are significant parallels that can be drawn to Junior's win at Pocono and his upcoming start here on July 13.
Earnhardt has now made 29 starts at Pocono with eight top-fives, 12 top-10s and 21 lead-lap finishes for a 15.8 average finish.
Here at NHMS, Earnhardt has made 29 starts with seven top-fives, 12 top-10s and 22 lead-lap finishes for a 15.7 average finish.
Obviously the statistical comparison speaks for itself, but that doesn't necessarily translate to a sure-fire victory. Instead, it takes hard evidence of progress, and that's exactly what the 88 team left New Hampshire Motor Speedway with after last week's two-day test session.
"The car was good and I like this track; this track is a lot of fun," said Earnhardt during a break from testing at NHMS on June 4. "You got to look back at the races that you run here over the years and think about the recurring issues that you face pretty much every time you come here and try to find those."
If what he found during testing here last week is any indication then "we're next" on Junior's list.
After all, it's not the same at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.