Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running out of time.
Not only is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver on the verge of ending his career, Earnhardt’s playoff position grows weaker by the day. Halfway through the regular season, he’s a full 100 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final postseason spot in the Cup Series.
A slow start has ultimately doomed Earnhardt to racing from behind. While the speed at the No. 88 team has stabilized, resulting in two straight top-11 finishes, it still hasn’t been enough to get the 42-year-old up front on a regular basis.
In fact, Earnhardt has led just 10 laps all season and only two since February’s Daytona 500. That is important because to be so far out on points, a win looks like the only way Earnhardt can sneak into the playoffs.
The final 13 regular season races do offer a handful of tracks where Earnhardt has enjoyed past success. However, many of those places, like Richmond and Michigan, can only give him so much confidence. The struggles of his team on those types of ovals this season make Victory Lane a longshot at best.
That is why Pocono this Sunday presents a prime opportunity for a breakthrough. NASCAR will not visit this type of triangular-shaped, unique track again in the playoffs. There’s only a handful of teams focused on improving here, a place where Earnhardt’s already one of the best. He swept both 400 milers here a couple of years ago and was second in the only Pocono race he ran in 2016.
So the No. 88 should enter with a bit of an edge. They should also be feeling the pressure. This weekend, along with when the series comes back in late July could make the difference in the sport’s Most Popular Driver becoming a part of the postseason chase or simply an interested championship observer.
Axalta presents the Pocono 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Larson may have ultimately finished second to the No. 48 team and Jimmie Johnson at Dover, but running behind the man with a NASCAR-best 11 victories at the Monster Mile is nothing to sneeze at. Larson now has five runner-up finishes in 13 races this season to go along with a win at Fontana.
That’s impressive, an important step as the 24-year-old moves closer toward superstar status. Who would have predicted he and Martin Truex Jr. would be more than 100 points ahead of everyone else at the regular season’s halfway point?
Who’s at the Back: Team Penske
What is going on in Penske land? Recent crew suspensions for post-race violations along with the point penalties coming with them have taken their toll. Brad Keselowski has now crashed out in two straight races, wiping out the joy of this season’s two wins. His contract extension, brought up by the media in recent weeks, threatens to become a distraction.
Then there’s Joey Logano, still recovering from a Richmond victory that was later labeled an “encumbered” finish. He can’t use the win to earn himself a playoff spot and what’s happened since leaves him in a precarious position. Four straight runs outside the top 20 have left only Matt Kenseth behind him on the playoff ladder.
After a few races running with Regan Smith, Richard Petty Motorsports named Bubba Wallace the full-time sub for an injured Aric Almirola in the No. 43 car. Wallace, whose career may be on the line with this move, was running full-time in the XFINITY Series for a Roush Fenway Racing car whose sponsorship was running out. Now, that No. 6 Ford has suspended operations as Wallace looks to prove himself on the Cup level.
Wallace’s start on Sunday will make him the first full-time African-American driver on the Cup level since Bill Lester in 2006. But Wallace, backed by the first family of African-Americans in the Cup Series, the Scotts, isn’t feeling the pressure. “I'm glad to be leading the forefront of that right now,” he said of the sport’s continued drive toward diversity. “It just shows that we're trying to bring in a new demographic. We're trying to bring in a new face, get a younger generation, no matter what color, what age. We're trying to get everybody involved to bring NASCAR back.
Both the crew chiefs ofKyle Buschin the Cup Series andChase Briscoein the Truck Series, along with their tire carriers and changers have been issued four-week suspensions. Both vehicles had loose wheels after a pit stop, violating NASCAR safety rules. Briscoe’s owner, Brad Keselowski, was outspoken about the penalty, claiming the incident was unintentional. But after some public waffling from NASCAR officials they chose to enforce the regulations as set forth in the rulebook.
Danica Patrick was the latest name in the Silly Season rumor mill this week after reports both she and Stewart-Haas Racing were exploring options surrounding her contract beyond the 2017 season. Patrick, who earned her first top 10 of the year at Dover last weekend, sits a disappointing 30th in the point standings.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes by rookie Daniel Suarez. That leads all freshmen but is the most by any driver this season without a top-10 finish.
Finishing position for Jeffrey Earnhardt Sunday in his first race with new primary sponsor Hulu. That ties the best run for him since a 26th in February’s Daytona 500.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
If there’s ever a time to ride the Matt Kenseth train, it’s now. The No. 20 team, which moved into playoff position after Sunday, led 31 laps in this race last year. Other than Chase Elliott, Kenseth was a top contender until fuel mileage became the deciding factor. He’s been quietly building speed and Joe Gibbs Racing is due to break out of its season-long slump at some point, right?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Martin Truex Jr. are strong backups here, drivers who have won at Pocono within the last three seasons. Just stay away from Kyle Busch. This track is one of two left on the circuit (Charlotte) where the No. 18 team still has not won.
Chase Elliott righted the ship last weekend with a top-5 result at Dover. That’s the first time since Bristol, well over a month ago that Elliott finished inside the top 20.
Now, the question is whether the sophomore can keep the momentum going. Elliott was superb in this race last June, leading 51 laps and arguably one good restart away from victory. This youngster is certainly capable of a repeat performance but can he put a full race together?
Elliott’s good friend Ryan Blaney also is due for a solid performance after two straight weeks of mechanical failures. A strong average finish of 10.5 in two Pocono starts makes him a solid bet for your roster.
Everyone remembers Chris Buescher’s big upset from last July here at Pocono. Running with the underfunded No. 34 team, Buescher was in the right place, right time once rainstorms cut that race short. No one expects him to duplicate that performance, certainly. But this will be one of the better tracks to use a start from him and the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet.
Looking for another extreme dark horse? How about Landon Cassill and the very Front Row Motorsports team who won that race in July? Cassill’s not that bad at Pocono, boasting a 14th-place finish with a wildly underfunded team here just two years ago.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski had the edge in Vegas on Friday morning, boasting 5/1 odds to 6/1 for both Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.
What I Think
I think this race is going to produce an upset. No, no, not Dale Earnhardt Jr. although I expect him to be in contention. Instead, Matt Kenseth is going to end the bad vibes at Joe Gibbs Racing and earn them their first Cup victory of 2017.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)