Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Oh So Close For Junior

Kevin Harvick won the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, but the story isn't so much that he's won back-to-back races, leading a grand total of seven laps in the process. No, it's more about who Harvick beat for the win.

Namely, one Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Harvick passed Junior with four laps to go on Sunday, robbing Junior and the majority of the 65,000 fans in attendance of that elusive victory. Junior has now gone 99 races without a win, dating all the way back to 2008, when he won at Michigan on a fuel mileage gamble.

Since the start of the 2005 season, Junior has three wins, two of which came on fuel mileage.

But things are definitely heading in the right direction for Junior and the rest of the No. 88 team. He's eighth in points heading into Saturday night's race at Texas, and Junior has three top-10s through six races -- as well as an 11th at Bristol and a 12th at Fontana. Were it not for a late wreck in the Daytona 500, he might be even higher up in the standings.

But even by his own admission, Junior and the No. 88 aren't in race-winning form yet. Hard to believe, considering he was four laps away from victory on Sunday, but if nothing else, his runner-up effort -- and the move he put on Kyle Busch to take the lead with 21 laps to go -- show that things are headed in the right direction.

A lot of it is likely due to Steve Letarte. Not that Letarte is any better a crew chief than Lance McGrew or Tony Eury Jr. -- both of whom are proven in NASCAR circles -- but Letarte and Junior obviously have chemistry. Junior's giving Letarte good information and Letarte is making sure Junior doesn't get down on himself when things go wrong.

I'm not saying Junior will be a title contender this season -- I'm not even ready to proclaim him a Chase driver yet -- but the team and the driver are trending up for the first time since his hot start to the 2008 season. He could win a race or two this season (maybe this weekend at Texas, or next weekend at Talladega), but that's as far as I'm willing to go.

Junior gave fans a glimpse of what once was and what once again could be on Sunday in Martinsville. Were it not for Harvick playing the role of spoiler (or bad guy, if you want to use his words), that first win might've come sooner than anyone imagined.

But he's not quite there yet. Steps are being made, though, and I think it's only a matter of time.

No comments: