Earnhardt Jr. takes points lead to Martinsville
Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads into the upcoming race weekend in somewhat unfamiliar territory — at the top of NASCAR’s Cup standings.
Earnhardt got there with a second-place finish in the most recent race, on March 24 at Fontana, Calif., which shot him into the lead by 12 points over defending champ Brad Keselowski, who finished 23rd and out of the top five for the first time this season.
Now in his 14th season in NASCAR’s top division, Earnhardt has been the points leader in just two previous campaigns — 2004 and 2012.
His move to the top went without much fanfare, overshadowed by the Denny Hamlin/Joey Logano/Tony Stewart drama. It’s also early in the season and Earnhardt hasn’t been dominating the competition in getting to the top.
He has no wins, two seconds with late rallies at Daytona and Fontana, a fifth, a sixth and a seventh. And then there is the fact that he has won just twice since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
“We’re not winning races, and I don’t expect to get much attention until we can win races,” Earnhardt said during a teleconference this week. “I guess the way we’ve ran doesn’t really reflect well on our finishes, meaning that I think we should run better. We’ve finished well, but I think that there’s a lot of areas that we can improve.
“You know, if we go out and win some races, we’ll get credit where credit is due, but we ran well, we’ve gotten lucky, we’ve had good cars, we’ve worked hard. But everybody in the garage has done the same thing, and there’s other guys in the series that aren’t doing anything who are flashier than we are. I wouldn’t expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is. Hopefully we can win some races, though, and change that.”
Earnhardt could change that at Martinsville even though he has never won there while his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have been two of the best. Earnhardt has consistently been one of the better drivers here in recent years, posting four straight finishes of seventh or better before finishing 21st last fall. One of the finishes in that streak was a second in 2011 that matched his personal Martinsville best in 2008. In 26 starts, he has posted 10 top-five finishes, tying his personal best at Daytona, and 14 top-15 finishes (one short of his personal-best 15 at Daytona). He has also led 868 laps.
That is a long way from a guy who struggled like many young drivers who have trouble getting around tight turns after rocketing down long straightaways. He struggled so badly in one of his early races here that his father wanted to park him during a rough day when he kept running into things.
“I ran over everything and finally Dad was like, man, ‘tell that kid to park it,’” Earnhardt said. “But somewhere in the race I had started on the inside a lap down, and I took off and yarded the leader by a straightaway. I was so proud of myself, and that’s the only thing I took away from the race. I kept trying to talk about that on the way home, but all Dad wanted to talk about was how much I ran over and how I needed to really learn how to run better on the short tracks.
“It’s a funny story thinking back on it now. But yeah, those first few trips were a real eye opener. The racing there is nothing what you imagine, even coming up through those style of racetracks. It’s just really tough and hard racing, and you’ve got to pick your battles. But it’s a long race and you can really just take yourself out of it early if you’re not careful.”