By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done a masterful job of climbing back into striking distance of the chase for the Sprint Cup.
Just three races ago Earnhardt and his team were in complete turmoil after a six race stretch without as much as a top-ten finish, and they seemed to be headed towards a second half slide in the point standings. After Pocono Earnhardt found himself back in 16th in the standings a whopping 87 points from the last spot in the chase, and falling fast.
It was somewhat stunning because before that horrendous chunk of his season, Earnhardt found himself solidly in the chase at seventh in the point standings after Texas in April. However things began to spiral out of control, and their finishes and performance began to take a nose dive.
Earnhardt and his crew chief Lance McGrew had to get things turned around quickly, if not they may of been destined to repeat last season’s pathetic showing that resulted in a 25th-place ranking in the final standings.
The sense of urgency must of been just what they needed, because at Pocono something refreshing began to happen.
Earnhardt replaced his usually expletive laced temper tantrums on the radio, with constructive positive words for his team and crew chief. Along the way he has began to breakdown more thoroughly what the car is doing, and McGrew has become more comfortable with what changes to make his driver competitive throughout the entire race.
What essentially has happened is the biggest and quickest turnaround I have ever seen.
Immediately the team has gone from a mid-pack car to a team that is fighting for top-tens week in, and week out.
Heck Earnhardt even tied his career best finish at Infineon a couple weeks ago with an 11th-place finish. Of course Dale Jr. has threatened to demolish that road course with dynamite in the past, so the fact that he was strong there was a definite confidence boost. New self esteem, and a renewed attitude have seemingly become the magic cure for the No. 88 team.
To put the turnaround in perspective let me give you a mind-blowing stat.
Over the last three races Earnhardt is averaging a finish of 8.6.
In the previous six races before he got his mojo back Earnhardt was averaging a finish of 22.3.
Going into Daytona (one of his best tracks) Earnhardt now sits just three points behind Carl Edwards for the 12th and final chase spot.
Not only that, but remember that even though he hasn’t been too spectacular this season, Earnhardt is actually about halfway to accomplishing something he has never done before in his career. Through 17 starts this season the Mooresville, North Carolina native has yet to record a DNF (Did Not Finish).
The new ‘Have At It Boys’ aggression we are seeing on the track, and the seemingly endless rivalries all of a sudden are what make this feat even more impressive.
Think about it. You have Edwards versus Keselowski. Gordon versus Truex, Kenseth, and Montoya. Also Jimmie Johnson has beef with Kurt Busch now.
However Earnhardt has quietly kept to himself, and has chipped his way back into contention.
If he can continue to drive with his head, and stay out of the shoving matches that just about everybody else has found themselves in lately, he in my opinion will make the chase with ease. I also think he could even shape up to be the dark-horse to stop Johnson’s quest for a fifth title (However until further notice I believe the only one who can beat Johnson is himself).