Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just 29 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races left in his career. That much we know after Tuesday.
But for the sport’s retiring “Most Popular Driver,” it’s the next two that could prove crucial in how his final season as a full-time competitor turns out.
On the racetrack, Earnhardt has had a difficult start to 2017. He sits 24th in the standings, earning just one top-five finish, and sits 50 points out of a playoff spot. Three DNFs in eight races have produced an average finish of 23.8; should it last, that would be a career low.
But Richmond this weekend, along with Talladega the following week offer Earnhardt a chance at redemption. He’s won a total of nine times at those two places, leading 1,561 laps. Just Daytona (four victories) slots in between as a place where he’s earned more trophies.
Consider that at Richmond, Earnhardt was fifth as recently as the fall of 2015. He’s earned nine straight top-15 finishes with Hendrick Motorsports there, dropping off the lead lap just once. It’s the site of his first career Cup short track win, back in 2000 and one of his favorite places to run on the circuit.
From there, we go to one of the few places Earnhardt likes even more. Talladega offers him restrictor plate parity, the chance to contend even if the handling is off on his Chevrolet, along with six career Cup victories. In 2015, he had an average finish of 1.5 at the 2.66-mile facility; Earnhardt’s plate expertise is second to none.
These offer two great opportunities to earn a win and an “automatic bid” into the playoffs, one Earnhardt might need considering the sluggish start and quality drivers sitting in front of him. He’s always been at his best at the smallest and largest tracks on the circuit.
What better time than now, right after the retirement announcement, to get his season on track back into high gear? Both he and the sport could badly use it at a time old Earnhardt fans may be (briefly) paying attention.
2017 Toyota Owners 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Richmond International Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Clint Bowyer
Who says second place is the first loser? Especially when you finish right behind seven-time Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson. Bowyer, runner-up at Bristol, may have failed to lead a lap this season but he owns seven straight top-15 runs. He’s moved up to eighth in points, best of all drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing, and looks poised to win a race sooner rather than later. It’s a far cry from his miserable year last season at now-defunct HScott Motorsports, a place where Bowyer earned just three top-10 results all season. So far this year, he’s got four.
Who’s at the Back: Landon Cassill
A year that started with such promise (16th at Daytona) has rapidly taken a step back towards mediocrity. Cassill hasn’t hit the top 20 since, running 32nd at Bristol Sunday at a place he once contended last season with Front Row Motorsports. Yes, FRM isn’t one of the sport’s top teams but they expected a building year in their second season with Cassill. Instead? They’re looking at another downward slide even with the return of veteran David Ragan.
So a little birdie told me Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be retiring. Have you heard?
Related: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Breaks Free
Earnhardt drowned out most other NASCAR news of the week but Brad Keselowski’s final appeal of his penalty through Team Penske got rescheduled for May 9 due to illness for NASCAR Final Appeals Officer Bryan Moss. Crew chief Paul Wolfe, who would be suspended otherwise, can work the next two upcoming races until that appeal is heard.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career starts for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Cup Series should he race the rest of 2017. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. had 676 by comparison.
Career victories for Earnhardt Jr. on the Cup level compared to 76 for his father. Junior, though has more Daytona 500s to his credit (two to one).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
We’ve been waiting for months now for Joe Gibbs Racing to get back on track. Well, the Toyotas were fast in practice early at Richmond (at least the Furniture Row ones were) and the weekend seems promising for anyone driving a Camry. JGR has won the last three Cup races at the facility with Matt Kenseth, now-retired Carl Edwards, and Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is your best bet of the trio; at his hometown track, he’s got three career wins and led 189 laps en route to victory last fall.
How could you bet against Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson right now? These drivers, despite sitting 1-2 in Cup Series points are in the “B” tier for Yahoo! Sports and are still middling in price elsewhere considering their limited history in Cup. But both men are perennial contenders each week, earning their spot near the top of the points standings. In Elliott’s case? He hasn’t run worse than 14th all year, no matter the track, no matter the circumstances. Add in Larson’s 202 laps led at Bristol last week and one of these two, if not both should be on your roster.
Remember what I said about Furniture Row Racing earlier? Rookie Erik Jones was second in practice and is easily the best rookie so far in 2017. Running a solid 17th last week at Bristol, he’s poised to do better here and has three top-five finishes from his XFINITY Series days.
Need a real dark horse? How about Aric Almirola, quietly overachieving this season for Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola has three top-10 finishes in 10 career Richmond starts and was an admirable 21st and 17th there last year during a low point for his RPM No. 43 team.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has just 5/1 odds to win Richmond this weekend, putting him at the top of the list. Kyle Larson, despite just one Cup win to his credit, sits right behind at 6/1.
What I Think
Clint Bowyer has quietly been running better and better each week. Once upon a time, Richmond was one of the veteran’s best tracks and he proves it this weekend with a convincing charge to victory. Stewart-Haas Racing was wise to hire the veteran to drive the No. 14 Ford for a retiring Tony Stewart and he’s developing into a title contender quicker than you might think.
— 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.)