It has been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished a career-best third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings.
Earnhardt followed it up with the best year of his career, a 2004 campaign where he earned six wins and 16 top-five finishes. His pace dropped off following those spectacular seasons, and Earnhardt has spent the rest of his career battling to finish in the Top 10 instead of challenging for championships.
But 2013 is different. He has outpaced two of his high-profile teammates, and the numbers show he has been as fast as anyone on the track.
In his 14th full season in the Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt is finally poised to make a serious run at the championship for the first time in a decade.
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 midrace average tells just part of the story. The loop data also shows 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).
Though he has not been getting the finishes, Earnhardt has been fast all season, running at the front of the pack in nearly every race. If the team continues to run this fast every week, the finishes will come, and Earnhardt will find himself in the middle of the championship battle right down to the season finale at Homestead.
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 Jimmie 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.
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