And here we are at last, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in position for a championship. He's in his best position standings-wise in nearly a decade, and he's running better, in an aggregate sense, than he ever has in his career. (His average finish of 9.9 is more than two positions better than he's ever recorded before.)
So why are we not trumpeting Junior as the great green-and-white hope? Why is nobody outside Junior Nation saying this is the year he starts to match his daddy's legacy? Because his daddy never had to race against anyone like Jimmie Johnson, that's why. (Heresy!) Plus, Junior doesn't have his father's skill and temperament, which is not an insult; think about how many other drivers have tried and fallen short of the Intimidator's legacy.
What Earnhardt does have is a team that's absolutely clicking right now, a team that's taken all the jabs at crew chief and pit crew skill and overwhelmingly refuted all of them. Earnhardt is feeling confident behind the wheel, his team has faith in his abilities, and everything's lining up just right for him to reassert himself as a consistent Chase driver, if not necessarily a championship one.
His best Chase track: Martinsville, at which he's got an average finish of 12.6 but no wins, or Talladega, where he averages about a 15th-place finish but has five wins? Pick 'em. Either way, his strong history at tracks that give other drivers fits bodes well for Little E.
His worst Chase track: He's got an average finish of 23.1 at Homestead, but given that most drivers are out of the hunt by then, that's a deceivingly low stat. Instead, look to Charlotte, where he has an average finish of 18.8 as a more reliable (if problematic) indicator of where he'll run at Chase tracks.
JB's take: You need wins to take the Chase (Carl Edwards in '11 is very narrowly an exception that proves the rule), and Junior hasn't shown he's capable of winning very much yet. If he takes an early race or two, the whole picture changes, but as it is, he's not the kind of driver who can rack up bunches of victories. He'll stay in the picture until November, but he won't be a championship factor.