Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke a winless drought yesterday by cruising to the checkered flag at Michigan. It was his first victory in 143 races. As an Earnhardt Jr. fan, it was a great moment. And appropriately, he won the race on Father's Day, giving the late Dale Sr. a great gift.
In that 143 race drought, Earnhardt Jr. rarely showed frustration. Quite the opposite. He seems to have learned patience and consistency. Something which was lacking in the earlier stages of his career.
His average finish this season is 7.9. Last year it was 14.5. The year before it was 18.6. And before that it was 23.2. Four straight years of improvement. Earlier in his career he fluctuated up and down. He peaked in 2003 and 2004, finishing in the top 5 in points both years. But the occasional bad finish (or lack of finish) undermined his championship efforts.
In 2004, he won 6 races. Only Jimmie Johnson won more (8). But Junior wound up 5th in points. He won 2 races in the Chase, but also failed to finish 2 times.
This year, he's finished every race. He hasn't finished out of the top 20. He's had cars good enough to win, didn't get the win, but still secured a good finish. He's had cars not good enough to win, and has still managed to get a solid result. He's completed every lap this season.
So what are the chances of him winning the Cup? As good as any other contender. Maybe a bit better.
He sits 2nd in points, only 4 behind Matt Kenseth. He's grabbed that elusive win. The team isn't missing steps. Most importantly, there's no other driver or team that seems to have a better chance. There have been 11 winners in 15 races.
The door to the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship is wide open to a number of drivers. And one standing near the front of the line is Dale Earnhardt Jr.