For months now, pundits and critics asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he was going to win another race. Sunday, after Earnhardt took the Lifelock 400 at Michigan, some of those same critics claimed Danica and said the win wasn't real, that it wasn't deserved.
Granted, two of those critics were Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth, two guys with good cars who felt they deserved a shot at the win.
The best car doesn't always win the race. Often, strategy and luck play into that. We don't get on Clint Bowyer's case for winning at Richmond back in May, and we aren't screaming for Jimmie Johnson to give back his Phoenix trophy -- which he won on fuel mileage. So what makes Junior's win on Sunday any less legit?
Some will mention passing the pace car, which I grant he did on more than one occasion. But once NASCAR told him to stop, he did. And near as I can tell, there's no such rule in the rulebook (assuming, of course, this is a NASCAR rule book ... no one seems to be able to find it).
I know one thing, though ... NASCAR will make it a rule from here on out. Because as we all know, the rule book is written in pencil.
There is the name, I grant: when your father is a guy who won seven Winston Cup titles and 76 career races -- and you just so happen to bear his first name -- there's pressure. Particularly once you leave your family's team to drive for one of the top organizations in the sport, an organization that since 1995 has won seven Cup championships.
And if we took luck out of the equation, Sunday could've been Junior's fourth win of the season. He was leading at Richmond late -- got wrecked. He was one of the strongest cars at Talladega before Bobby Labonte forced Tony Stewart into him. And Charlotte? If that tire doesn't go down, Junior's car was easily the best once the sun went down.
For all those who view Dale Earnhardt Jr. as nothing more than a talentless hack, consider the following evidence:
-Third in the Sprint Cup Series standings this season, 84 points behind Kyle Busch.
-18 career Cup Series wins (more than Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ernie Irvan, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards -- guys one might consider better than Junior).
-Sprint Cup Series wins at: Richmond, Texas, Bristol, Michigan, Daytona, Talladega, Dover, Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte (2000 Winston All-Star Race).
-Series-high six wins in 2004, finishing fifth in the final standings.
-2004 Daytona 500 winner.
-Finished a career-best third in the Sprint Cup standings in 2003.
-1998 and 1999 Nationwide Series champion.
Doesn't sound like the talentless son of a legend who has no place in the sport. I won't sit here and say Junior is the best driver in the series (though I am a fan), but it's not like he's a hunk of chopped liver on the track either. So he went 76 races without a win -- have we forgotten that his father once went 60 races winless? Or that Rusty Wallace once went 105 races without visiting Victory Lane?
These things always go in cycles -- even Kasey Kahne went over 50 races before finding the checkered flag in Charlotte last month. People who know auto racing know how talented Junior is, just as they know luck and good equipment have as much to do with things as actual driver ability.
How else can we explain someone as talented as Tony Stewart being winless so far this season? It's certainly not a lack of ability or effort.
Of course, the last two years, Junior has been in inferior equipment and in a heap of drama at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He'll never admit, but I'm fairly certain his performance last year (six blown motors) was a direct result of his fallout with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt --cue the conspiracy theorists who claim she did that to his cars on purpose out of spite. I won't argue the notion.
Will Junior win the title this year? Perhaps, and he's likely to win a couple more races this year. But to hoist the Cup after Homestead, he'll have to beat Busch and Edwards. But if one bothers to look past his name and pedigree, one will find that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is actually a good driver who'd due his fair share of breaks.
Too Fast, Son!
Hear the rumors that if Tony Stewart does leave Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of this season, Nationwide Series phenom Joey Logano might find himself in one of the top rides in the Sprint Cup Series? Or that Gibbs wants Logano to run a few Cup races this season?
Anyone else think this has the potential to really screw up this kid's career?
Logano became the youngest Nationwide Series winner ever on Saturday, taking the checkered flag in Kentucky in just his third career start. He's obviously a stud behind the wheel, but there's something to be said for putting him in the series' most dominant car with the best team. There's no guarantee the transition to Sprint Cup will be as easy.
Yes, I realize Logano has logged over 4,000 miles of testing in a Cup car. But testing and the race? Two completely different things ... and the talent level in the Cup Series is leaps and bounds over that in the Nationwide ranks.
Besides, putting that kid in the No. 20? A car that has won two Sprint Cup titles this decade? I realize Logano likes pressure -- anyone who's called "Sliced Bread" should -- but can someone so young really stand up to that?
And okay, to be honest, I don't want to corrupt this kid by making him spend every single weekend with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin yet. Logano seems like a nice enough kid -- why warp him so soon?
If Logano hops in a Cup car and promptly wins a race, I'll be the first to admit I was wrong. But I think it is far too soon to throw a talented kid who's spent his life dominating lesser talents into the fire like this.
I mean, look what it did to Michelle Wie.