Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Friday, July 9, 2010

Junior Gets Emotional Win; Is He Back?

I realize I'm a little late with this -- talking about Daytona when we're already at Chicagoland for this weekend's races -- but the story here has been big enough that it still warrants discussion.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeño 250 last Friday night at Daytona International Speedway. Anytime Junior wins a race -- he hadn't done that since Michigan in 2008 -- it's a big deal, but the win at Daytona was large because of the car Junior was driving: a replica of the Wrangler Jeans No. 3 his father made famous in the 1980s.

That's right, thanks to a deal coming together in part between JR Motorsports, Richard Childress and Teresa Earnhardt, Junior paid homage to his late father and celebrated his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

And he took the car to Victory Lane.

It's impossible to overstate how much it means to NASCAR and its fans to see the No. 3 back in Victory Lane -- especially at Daytona. The sport just hasn't been the same since Junior's father was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, and any time we can relive Senior's glory -- and watch his favorite son win in the process -- it's a cause for celebration.

Not only that, but it was the latest bit of good news for Junior. After a disastrous May, Junior has four straight finishes of 11th or better in the Sprint Cup Series; after finishing seventh in Michigan, he salvaged 11th at Infineon, finished eighth at New Hampshire, and on Saturday, he dodged all the wrecks to finish fourth in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

Junior wasn't happy about that finish, saying his car was terrible all night and they lucked into that finish. But seeing as how Junior is 11th in points and in Chase contention, it's probably something he should happily take into Chicagoland and look for another good run.

Junior won at Chicagoland in 2005.

The No. 88 team probably isn't where it needs to be right now for Junior to win races and be a true title contender, but if the last month is any indication, he's getting his confidence back, and after a disastrous 2009, maybe simply running well and making the Chase -- and yes, getting some luck along the way -- is what Junior needs.

NASCAR benefits when Junior is running well -- as the sport's Most Popular Driver, that just makes sense. If Junior can keep doing what he's doing of late, and qualify for the Chase, that gives him and the rest of the team momentum and confidence heading into the 2011 season.

For a sport struggling with television ratings and on-track attendance, a successful Junior would be good news for everyone.

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