A solid weekend of racing at Bristol has left some guy named Earnhardt looking stout, a return of last year's champion to the top and more questions about what would make fans buy tickets at Bristol in the spring time again. Let's jump in for Hot/Not:
HOT: Through four races, the 2013 season has brought a decent – if not splendid – start for NASCAR's most talked about driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two top 5s and four top 10s on his résumé in the fresh season. It's enough, if measured by ranking in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings, to qualify as Earnhardt's most successful season launch.
Earnhardt started 32nd Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. He finished sixth. Through both attrition of leaders in front of him and by some savvy pit road calls by crew chief Steve Letarte, the finish moved Earnhardt to second in points.
Earnhardt's 2004 season start could rival his 2013 line through four races thanks to a pair of wins he scored at Daytona and Atlanta. But 2013 ranks better in the area of consistency thanks to a finish at Las Vegas in 2004 of 35th. That day, his No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet was so bad that the team had turned the 400-mile race into a test session by Lap 100.
This year's strong start, though, isn't what has Earnhardt most pleased. He's instead glad to simply not already be playing the stressful game of Chase for the Sprint Cup catch-up that he watched teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon endure throughout last summer. Gordon, thanks to a Daytona crash and a blown tire at Bristol, is already playing that dreaded game again.
"Last year we were able to get a good 10-race start to the season and not have to worry about the points deal," Earnhardt said before Sunday's race. "We were comfortable in the summer and we could worry about our car and think about other things and not be stressed out about our points situation. No matter how good a race team you are, if you get behind, it's a battle all the way to Richmond. And we don't want to be in that situation."
Ultimately, Earnhardt – who qualified for his second consecutive Chase last year – saw any hopes of a title dashed with symptoms from a concussion that kept him from two races late in the season. But even before that, the Chase hadn't gone well for team No. 88. Three races in, Junior was nearly a full race behind eventual champion Brad Keselowski in points after his finishes late in the year weren't sustained relative to the one's early in the year.
Starting hot and finishing cool has been a hallmark of Earnhardt's Sprint Cup career.
Results from his 12 full seasons at NASCAR's highest level show that Earnhardt has typically finished more than three spots higher during the first ten races of a season than he does in the last ten. In fact, it's a progression that has gotten worse since his move to Hendrick Motorsports. At DEI, Earnhardt averaged a finish of 15.5 in the season's first ten events compared to a finish of 16.9 in the season's final ten. Five seasons at Hendrick have shown a stronger start than his DEI days (12.8 average finish) but an even slower finish (19.6).
2012, however, was a marked improvement for Earnhardt in improving both early and late season results. He started off last year at the most impressive clip of his career in the first ten races, averaging a finish of 7.5. The average of the final ten races that Earnhardt competed in was still down to 13.2, but that number marked a fourth-straight year of improvement during that stretch and was light years ahead of his 28.2 average in the final ten races of 2009.
Championships, of course, aren't exclusively the product of running well both early and late in a season. Just ask the 2011 version of Tony Stewart. Jimmie Johnson's run of five straight titles indicates that it certainly doesn't hurt, though. Earnhardt's Hendrick teammate for three of those record-breaking seasons, Johnson won just a single title – in 2006 – when his average finish dropped from 7.4 to 10.8 between the season's first ten and last ten events. Since then, the average finish in Johnson's title winning years has been stellar for Chase time, never rising above 6.8 (2009). In 2008, Johnson's turnaround in the season's opening and closing segments was nearly nine spots.
In today's point structure, that could be worth more than 90 points. The last two championships in NASCAR's top division have been decided by a grand total of 39.
Earnhardt's put forth an average finish of fifth to start this season. Even by Johnson's standards, it's a rate that's nearly unsustainable. But things are different for the No. 88 team this season, starting foremost with the newly-designed Chevy SS that Kannapolis, N.C.'s favorite son gets to drive. Earnhardt has made a point to note that the new platform seems to mesh better with his driving style than the heavier former model.
He's also made it keenly obvious that he's in tune with third-year crew chief Steve Letarte – even if there are moments of frustration for Earnhardt such as the middle of Sunday's event at Bristol when the car seemed unfixable.
Hoisting trophies and spraying championship champagne is a long way off for Earnhardt. To get there, he'll have to finish this season as good or better as he started it. Four races isn't nearly enough time to know if his No. 88 will actually be a factor, but it is enough to know that NASCAR's favorite son at least has a chance.
HOT: For as consistent as Earnhardt has been, it's equally important to note that Sunday's winner Kasey Kahne was an odds-on favorite at Daytona and missed a win at Las Vegas by just a few car lengths. Kahne, quiet most of 2012, rallied to a fourth-place finish in last year's title race. His ceiling is higher this year.
NEUTRAL: I'd love to rip Fox for their seemingly nonsensical use of side-by-side commercial breaks exclusively during caution flags in Sunday's race, but such things aren't so simple in the world of television. Those breaks, by and far, are scheduled in advance and they just happened to fall when caution flags wave. One positive to look forward in that realm is the expectation set by Fox Sports 1 that most live sports will feature side-by-side commercial breaks.
HOT: It's always fun when dirty laundry hidden in NASCAR's typically tight-lipped culture comes out for all to see. Obviously, I'm referring to hubbub generated on and off track Sunday by Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Logano seems to be seething over both Hamlin's driving tactics and teammate abilities, while Hamlin seems just as peeved for mostly unseen reasons. Is Hamlin a bad teammate? Is Logano miffed about being pushed out of a Sprint Cup ride at Joe Gibbs? We'll probably never fully know. But it's fun to ponder.
NOT: Speaking of Hamlin and Logano – I appreciate a well-crafted tweet designed to talk trash. But the Twitter tiff both had Sunday just felt lame. Perhaps they can host a Google Hangout next time to settle their differences.
HOT: Three races at Bristol for Brian Vickers driving in a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, and now three top-10 finishes. He's back at Martinsville, but you have to wonder if a full-time return to Cup isn't too far away for him.
NOT: Something obviously still isn't right at Bristol, based on how empty Sunday's grandstands were. NASCAR no longer does official attendance estimates, but if last August's night race had 145,000, there were maybe 80,000 people on hand Sunday. That's a big crowd, sure, but much closer to half capacity than full. I understand the spring brings questionable weather and hotels sell rooms for an arm and a leg. But how many of 158,000 possible fans really stay in a hotel to attend a Bristol race? It sounds like we've got a problem more to do with cost of tickets than anything.
HOT: A.J. Allmendinger has two top-15 finishes in two starts in the No. 51 this year for Phoenix Racing. The last time that the same driver scored top-15 finishes in that car in consecutive starts was 10 years ago – Mike Wallace finished 12th at Richmond and then 10th at Talladega in 2003. Combined with Austin Dillon and Regan Smith, the No. 51 has been no worse than 21st this season – easily the best four-race average ever put together by a team owned by Finch.
NOT: Raise your hand if you thought Danica Patrick would trail teammates Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart by fewer than 20 points in the Sprint Cup standings after four races. Anyone? Anyone?
HOT: Give a call to Kurt Busch (4th), Paul Menard (9th) and Jamie McMurray (10th). For Menard, that's now two top-10s this season. For McMurray, that's his first top-10 since Pocono last June. As for Kurt Busch? Not only was fourth his best finish on an oval since 2011, but also just the fourth top-5 in the history of Furniture Row Racing.
NEUTRAL: Matt Kenseth was caught in Jeff Gordon's crash Sunday, so he can't technically be "hot" this week. But without that, was anyone stopping Kenseth from making it two straight Sunday? I don't think so.
HOT: An interesting Bristol streak ended Sunday thanks to a poor late restart by Keselowski and the plague of tire failures that hit Gordon, Hamlin and Johnson. Since NASCAR started publishing lap summary data in mid-2004, no winner at Bristol in the 18 races has been worse than fourth on Lap 350. The aforementioned drivers held those four spots on Lap 350, but Kasey Kahne managed to break the streak and prevail. Where was Kahne on Lap 350? Fifth.
The Stenica Showdown Cup!
We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple does against one another. This is a best-of-36 race, with the highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earning a point. Other points may be earned for various and completely inane reasons along the way (suggestions accepted), and the game ends if the couple uncouples.
1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 3 points (16th at Bristol)
2nd - Danica Patrick., 1 point (28th at Bristol)
Will Danica ever be closer than two points the rest of the season? Ricky seems to be on a heater – three points in a row!
Next up: California. Join us on the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR Live Chat at 3 p.m. ET Sunday.
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