Can Earnhardt Carry Pocono Momentum to Michigan?

Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had an up-and-down season. In 14 races this season, he has five top-five finishes – including four second-place runs – but also has three finishes outside of the 30. In fact, over the last six races, Earnhardt has only finished in the top 10 once.

One of those top 10 finishes came in last weekend’s race at Pocono. Where did he finish?

Second.

Now the series heads to Michigan International Speedway, where Earnhardt has enjoyed some success. He has two victories at the two-mile oval in 33 starts and has finished in the top 10 the last four races (including two top fives).

The No. 88 team is winless so far this season, a little bit of a surprise considering that Earnhardt won three races in 2015. In fact, there were many who thought that this would be a year that the 41-year-old driver could make a legitimate run at his first Sprint Cup Series championship (elimination-style format or not).

A lot of is made of momentum in this sport. Though the second-place run last weekend was partially due to strategy, it certainly was a confidence booster for a team that has had some lackluster finishes as of late.

This leads to another question though: Does Earnhardt need to win? With NASCAR’s still fairly new “win and you’re in” Chase format, a victory would virtually guarantee a Chase berth for the No. 88 team.

As of now, Earnhardt is currently 11th in points and holds a 47-point lead over 17th place AJ Allmendinger, the first driver currently outside of the Chase if you sort the points according to the “grid” system based on wins, then points.

Certainly Earnhardt could make it into the Chase on points. Though he certainly doesn’t have a huge cushion, it’s a comfortable distance that Earnhardt could reasonably maintain with still quite a bit of racing left in the regular season – 11 races to be exact.

Though Michigan may not be the best chance for Earnhardt to get to victory lane (Daytona is – after all – on the schedule next month), it certainly is one of two, maybe three, racetracks that the No. 88 team has to be circling as far their best chances to get to Victory Lane for the rest of the regular season.

There is also the subject of the new lower (-er, -er) downforce package that NASCAR is implementing for this weekend’s race at Michigan. Earnhardt (along with many other drivers) is very excited about the direction NASCAR is headed when it comes to encouraging passing and competition on track.

“Pocono was a good step in the right direction,” Earnhardt said in a release this week. “I felt like we could go there and run good. I think we learned a lot that we could use to understand how to get better. I’m looking forward to Michigan. Obviously, it’s going to be a different package but I think it’ll make for good racing and we should run well on that track, too. I anticipate having a good weekend.”

And if this weekend doesn’t pan out? Again, Daytona is next month and the series will return to Michigan again in August. Oh, and if Pocono is going to continue to be kind to this race team, there will be another opportunity to improve their second-place run again at the end of July.

Earnhardt is, at least as of now, not in any severe danger of missing the Chase. However, securing that elusive first victory of the season certainly takes a lot of stress and pressure off Earnhardt and his team for the rest of the regular season. Earnhardt will have many opportunities to do so before the Chase field is set in Richmond in the fall, but this weekend’s race at Michigan has to be viewed as perhaps their best chance to date to secure that spot.

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