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Flat Spot On: Does Junior Have Stamina to Win?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 13 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking for his first Sprint Cup championship while lame duck crew chief Steve Letarte is looking for his second. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is often touted as the favorite to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship under this year’s new format. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the driver being discussed and written about the most.

On the cusp of his 40th birthday, NASCAR’s perennially most popular driver is having his best season since 2004, when he won six times but fell out of Chase contention after crashing in Atlanta with three races to go.

Does Earnhardt Jr. have the stamina to go the distance for the title this year?

In an era of shorter races timed for three-hour TV windows, plus better handling cars and more cockpit support for drivers in the form of cool helmets, the element of physical endurance is not discussed much. That is, until a driver like Johnson uncharacteristically lies down beside his car after 400 laps at last weekend’s race at Richmond – which resulted from dehydration, it turns out, due to a cooling system that pumped hot air into his helmet.

It was an odd episode, because Johnson established his physical endurance early in his career. He won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte three straight times and swept back-to-back 500-mile races at Pocono, the second-longest race on the schedule in terms of duration. All this was accomplished before his fifth season in the Sprint Cup – or his first championship.

Other tracks where races are likely to last three and a half hours include the 500-mile races at Charlotte, Atlanta and Darlington, plus 500 laps at the relatively slow Martinsville short track. Johnson has done

The people's choice is in position to come through. Does he have the legs? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

exceedingly well at those tracks, winning a total of 17 times.

Of Johnson’s 69 career victories, a remarkable 22 have come in events with the longest duration, which suggest he has remarkable stamina behind the wheel. No wonder he’s done well at Chase tracks in the post-season. Part of that has been his success at Charlotte and Martinsville in the fall. But perhaps his physical endurance behind the wheel also helps him withstand the rigors of a long regular season followed by the 10-race Chase. It’s probably not by accident that Johnson has dominated during the era of the 36-race season.

There was no doubting the toughness and stamina of the multiple champions who preceded Johnson, particularly the seven-time champions whose records he is currently chasing, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. They competed in more 500-mile races, had less cockpit support and drove relatively ill-handling cars. To keep cool, for instance, Petty liked to hold a wet rag in his mouth.

By comparison to Johnson, the record of Earnhardt Jr. pales when it comes to the longer duration races. Of his 22 career victories, 14 have come in races lasting within 10 minutes of three hours in length, five have lasted closer to three and a half hours and only three of his victories have lasted longer. Earnhardt Jr. has yet to win a 600-mile race or 500-mile race at Charlotte and is also winless at Darlington and Martinsville. He won twice at Pocono this year in 400-mile races, but not in 24 starts when the event ran 500 miles and was a sure bet to last close to four hours. He has one victory in Atlanta.

It could be suggested that Earnhardt’s halting speech pattern in interviews immediately after some races has more to do with being worn out than searching for the right words, which usually seem to come easily to him. It could also be suggested that his ill-fated crash in Atlanta in 2004, which resulted from a sloppy maneuver in the lead draft, might have been a fatigue problem. It happened with 14 laps to go and right around the three-hour mark.

Of Earnhardt Jr.’s contemporaries with a similar time frame to their careers, Matt Kenseth, a one-time champion, and Kevin Harvick, who is still seeking his first title, have each won a 600-mile race in Charlotte. Interestingly, three-time champion Tony Stewart, whose career began the year before Earnhardt Jr. arrived, has yet to win a 600-mile race at Charlotte, although Stewart has one 500-mile victory there. He’s also won in Atlanta, Martinsville and Pocono in races that lasted longer than three and a half hours. But the driver who has often fought weight and conditioning problems also lags Johnson significantly when it comes to his over-all record in the longer duration races.

There are a lot of factors that enter into a championship season. And there are a lot of theories about Earnhardt Jr.’s career and why he hasn’t won more races or challenged more often for the championship. One element: his record suggests that the longer a race or season lasts, the less likely he is to win.

Earnhardt Jr. may not be alone in the stamina department. Harvick has become known as a guy who lurks in mid-pack and comes on stronger toward the end of races. Has he learned to compensate for endurance issues by taking it easier early in races? A contrary point of view would be the back flip of Carl Edwards after victories. Isn’t he just showing off how much physical strength and mental alertness he has – even after races?

The key question – will the new knock-out Chase format help a driver who doesn’t win longer duration races very often? There are only two remaining on the schedule – Charlotte and Martinsville , which both usually fall at three and a half hours. Each is in a separate round, or segment of the Chase. So it’s not likely to be a major factor when it comes to each knockout round.

The over-arching factor is that Johnson, who is anticipated to be fully recovered from his dehydration episode at Richmond, seems to always get stronger as the season wears on.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 13 2014
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • echo says:

    I think Jr is in better physical shape than he ever has been before. But mental lapses during the race seem to happen to jr more than to other drivers. It’s like he daydreams and then misses pit road or misses his pit stall. He is for sure doing better than he has in the last ten years and that combined with this being Steve’s last go around may keep jr mentally sharp throughout the chase.
    But at Homestead, it’s a crapshoot, not a championship race. A blown engine or tire is not the drivers fault but can take his chance away. If one driver and one team happen to come off the trailer in the perfect setup, then they win the championship in a sleeper. One race and whoever gets it right for that one race is the champion. I would love to see a non winner be the champion, that would show the world how Stupid Brians brilliant idea is.

  • Barb says:

    A few additional thoughts.

    For two years Junior was strapped with Lance McGrew – a crew chief who had no experience in the Spring Cup and never made the car better and had a thing for not even responding on the radio to questions Dale was asking or when making suggestions. The first race with Steve that was an immediate and positive difference.

    Dale has won two races this year during the summer months when he typically fell into a lull of good finishes.

    Mental agility (if you want to call it that) can come from many sources. Dale’s in a good place with Steve on the pit box, a pit crew he has a good relationship with, and Amy. When you have positive things around you and life is a happy one on and on track, things can carry over.

    Take away the DNF at Chicago last year and you’ll see that no one scored more points in the final nine races of the Chase.

    Interesting that your first statement is regarding so much written about Jr only to write another article predominantly about Dale.