By Doug Halberstadt
He’s been named the NASCAR Sprint Cup “Most Popular Driver” 11 consecutive times (2003-2013). He’s the reigning Daytona 500 champion. He’s the son of a NASCAR legend and Hall of Fame member. After the first three races of this season, he leads the series points standings. With his win at Daytona and his two consecutive second-place finishes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his racing career.
Is it too early to start talking about a season championship for Earnhardt Jr.? With only three races completed in a season the stretches into the middle of November, it could be. But that’s not deterring Junior fans from all over the country from talking about that very topic.
Social media, racing websites and blogs are blowing up with Dale dialogue. Several fans are already crowning him this year’s champion. I say, not so fast. Granted, he’s undoubtedly the hottest driver in the sport today, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a series championship.
In his 16-year Sprint Cup career, his best finish in the series season standings was more than 10 years ago. He finished third in 2003. Last year, he was fifth overall in the points.
I’m not rooting for or against Earnhardt Jr. to win a series championship. The only thing I’m saying is the Sprint Cup season is a long one, and in my opinion, it’s way too early to count out last year’s champion, Jimmie Johnson. He’s won the championship six out of the last eight years.
Those six championships have left Johnson one short of tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever. There’s a lot at stake for both Johnson and Junior between now and the middle of November.
NASCAR must be loving Junior’s start to this season. It’s put the sport back on the radar of the casual racing fan. The excitement he’s generated has to be good for ticket sales at the tracks. It would be even more exciting if Johnson happens to win a race in the next month or so. That would really add to the overall interest and make for a great racing season.
The series moves to the short track at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee this Sunday (March 16). Ironically, both Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson have only won one Sprint Cup race at the famed venue. Johnson took the checkers there in March of 2010, and Junior crossed the finish line first in the August 2004 race.
I’m sure both drivers would love to pick up win No. 2 at Bristol and add a little more fuel to the 2014 NASCAR fire that’s burning pretty brightly already.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the March 12-18, 2014 print edition