- By Ellen J. Horrow USA Today
It’s been a frustrating season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but a trio of tracks presents a prime opportunity to change his fortunes.
Earnhardt has begun a vital stretch of races that could be essential in determining whether the 14-time most popular driver makes the playoffs in his 18th and final season as a full-time driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as former champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart did in their final seasons in 2015 and ‘16, respectively.
Beginning Sunday at Pocono Raceway, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet visits three superspeedways that have been among his most successful venues – especially since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Earnhardt has posted nine victories in the past nine years, and six have come at tracks that make up three of the next four races: Pocono, Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
For a struggling team and an anxious Junior Nation, this stretch couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
“Pocono is a good track for us,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “I like both Pocono and Michigan, so we have some solid tracks coming up for the No. 88 gang.”
Earnhardt, 42, has posted only two top-10 finishes in 13 races this season (at Texas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway) and is ranked 23rd in points entering Sunday. He has 13 races to notch the win that would give him an automatic berth in the playoffs, beginning Sept. 17.
Including Sunday, five of those 13 races are at Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. Earnhardt has scored six top-five finishes in his past seven races at Pocono, including a sweep of the Tricky Triangle in 2014 and a runner-up finish last June.
Next weekend, Earnhardt travels to Michigan, where he won in 2008 and 2012 and finished runner-up in June 2015. July begins with a return visit to Daytona, where Earnhardt has notched four career victories, including two years ago in the Coke Zero 400.
While he will return to Pocono and Michigan again before the regular season ends, the other tracks remaining in the regular-season schedule hold far less promise to obtain the win that has eluded Earnhardt since the penultimate race of the 2015 season at Phoenix International Raceway.
He is winless on the road courses at Sonoma, where the series races June 25, and Watkins Glen (Aug. 6). He has never won at Kentucky Speedway (July 8), New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 16), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 23) or Darlington (Sept. 3). He has one career victory at Bristol Motor Speedway, but that came in August 2004. And although he has reached victory lane three time at Richmond International Raceway, the most recent was May 2006.
PHOTOS: BEHIND THE WHEEL WITH DALE EARNHARDT JR.
While a victory isn’t a requirement to make the playoffs, it is a virtual ticket. Sixteen drivers will compete for the championship in the final 10 races, and eight drivers currently have playoff-clinching wins. There is an opportunity for drivers to make the playoffs based on points. But Earnhardt is nearly 100 points behind the lowest-ranked driver currently in the top 16 (No. 13 Ryan Blaney) without a win.
Earnhardt seems to understand just how crucial this immediate stretch will be to his 2017 campaign. He began working with a simulator at Hendrick Motorsports ahead of last weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway and returned to the simulator earlier this week to prepare for Pocono.
“I look at the simulator basically — is it a perfect tool, no, it’s still in development — but it’s basically like you can go simulate practice,” Earnhardt explained on his Dale Jr. Download podcast Tuesday. “We don’t get much practice on the race track a lot of times to do what we want to do. We have a long list of things we want to accomplish, and we can’t get to all that stuff.
“So the reason why I like the sim is we go in there, and we can shorten that list up. We can go into Friday’s practice with a lot more confidence that the changes that we are going to make are going to be able to affect the car the way we want them to.”
That can only help Earnhardt as he searches for speed, consistency, and a win to springboard him into the playoffs in his final year.
Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow