Saturday will mark the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ third trip to the Kentucky Motor Speedway, the first for its generation-six car. The generation-six cars have performed admirably so far this season, but with new rear height and spring packages, the track record was swiftly broken, just like it has been for most of the season.
It marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 12th career pole, his first pole since 24 races ago at Richmond International Raceway. Although Earnhardt led 67 laps, he finished outside the top ten. But while Richmond is an incredibly competitive track, the same cannot be said for Kentucky Motor Speedway.
Hyped as a new breed of 1.5-mile track due to its ample room and ability to produce surprise winners, such as David Gilliland, Kentucky Motor Speedway has not been able to match the intensity it provided in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Both races do have something in common that may benefit Junior in his hunt for the overall points lead. In both Kentucky races, the pole-sitter has not only finished, but had a finishing position no worse than six. In the inaugural race, Kyle Busch dominated from pole, taking the victory.
For Earnhardt Jr., this pole exemplifies the progress the team has made at the new track. In 2011, Junior struggled mightily, qualifying 29th and finishing 30th. But in 2012, still with the generation-five car, Junior improved dramatically to qualify seventh and finish fourth.
Overall, Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte are putting together an impressive, if not quiet season. Earnhardt Jr. showed earlier in his career when he was driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., that he can be competitive in the championship hunt with or without the chase, and he can contend through consistency rather than outright victory.
But things have certainly changed for Dale, especially with the added pressure of being a Hendrick Motorsports driver. Now, victories are a must because of the prominence of his name or his team owner’s name, but the fact that NASCAR has shifted its points system where in order to contend, you have to win.
I believe that despite not entering victory lane this year, Earnhardt Jr. can be a threat. A win at a track like Kentucky would change things completely, not only making him a points lead contender but a legitimate threat for the title.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486