If you haven’t heard about Dale Earnhardt Jr’s third place finish in Sunday’s 3M Performance 400 at Michigan by now, you probably aren’t a NASCAR fan.
Stories about his run on Sunday have flooded the web. And with them, questions about whether or not the real Dale Earnhardt Jr. is actually “back”.
That depends on your definition of who the “real” Dale Earnhardt Jr. is. If the “real” Junior is the guy who runs mid-pack all day until he (your misfortune here), as a lot of you tend to think, then he technically never left. If the “real” Junior is the guy who runs up towards the front of the pack all day and finishes there, then your answer is simple.
Let us recap the race. Junior ran mid-pack all day. He took on two tires during a mid-race pit-stop to gain track position, and later topped off on fuel and tires when the leaders did not. As the race wound down, Earnhardt, who was put in a good position by his team, was able to pass cars who were slower than him because a(. They were on older tires, and b(. They were conserving fuel.
Because of that, Junior was able to easily pick apart the front half of the field for a top 3 finish. And, while I commend him for driving the wheels off the car when it counted, let us remember something else.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third once. This isn’t something that has been consistent. He drove the wheels off the car and finished in the top three once. Sam Hornish Jr. finished in fifth, and he had to battle back from a lap down and pick his way through the field, and we’re not hearing a word about his performance. Earnhardt was put in a good position by his crew, and finished third once.
One race cannot tell you if somebody is “back”. Heck, neither can two, or even three. Drivers have their good stretches, and the have their bad ones. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes in the top 10 in every race between now and the start of the Chase, which isn’t a tall task, then maybe we can talk about him truly being “back”.
But for now, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still the same guy that runs mid-pack. He just happened to stumble into favorable circumstances and take advantage once.