The most popular driver in NASCAR has become, well, kind of boring lately. Nobody in the sport pushes the attention needle quite like Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has the famous name and the fanatical following. He easily draws the biggest cheers each week during driver introductions, as well as on those (increasingly rare) occasions when he takes the lead in a race. He remains, in many ways, the face of the sport.
What he is not, most weeks, is a significant on-track story. Earnhardt nearly always runs in the top 20 and often in the lower half of the top 10, but he rarely runs up front anymore. Never mind that Earnhardt has only two victories over his past 259 starts and one win in the past 182 races. He has led a grand total of 92 laps this season (out of a possible 5,549), and 47 of those came in the second race of the season at Phoenix. Since then, he has led for one lap at Kansas, 34 at Michigan and 10 at Kentucky. That's it.
The rest of the time, Earnhardt simply has been running somewhere in the pack. Maybe not terribly far back in the pack, but not battling for the lead, either. He has, amazingly, become just another driver out there. Good but not great. A rich man's Martin Truex Jr.
As the Sprint Cup Series enters the final off-weekend of the season, Earnhardt is in excellent shape to make the Chase for the Championship. He is in fifth place in the point standings and a comfortable 57 points ahead of 11th place (the first spot not guaranteed to make the 12-driver Chase). He is one of only seven drivers to have posted at least 10 top-10 finishes this year. He has finished worse than 17th only twice in the past 12 races.
The problem is, during that same 12-race span, Earnhardt has finished better than eighth only once. He has become a consistent 8th-to-14th place driver, which, frankly, is boring. And boring doesn't win races, let alone championships.
Yes, being fifth in the point standings is a significant achievement. The Sprint Cup Series is more competitive than ever. Just ask the soon-to-be unemployed Ryan Newman -- who made the Chase two years ago and won a race last season -- how quickly fortunes can fade in the sport. But Earnhardt's position in the standings is somewhat deceiving. He is ahead of Matt Kenseth, but Kenseth has four victories this year. Who do you think is happier with their season? Earnhardt also leads Kyle Busch in the standings, but Busch has two wins and a series-best nine top-5 finishes. Which driver is truly having the better year?
Assuming Earnhardt makes the Chase, is there any indication that he will be a serious contender for the championship? Most people probably would give defending champion Brad Keselowski -- who is ninth in the standings and also winless this season -- a better shot at the title than Earnhardt.
All of this is puzzling, because there seems to be no doubt that Earnhardt is a more dedicated racer than he was early in his career. That was back when Earnhardt himself admits he was more interested in staying out late and sleeping in the next morning than he was in taking the extra time and effort to improve as a driver. That also was back when Earnhardt was winning 15 times over five seasons and seemingly always was a threat to take the checkered flag.
In fact, the contrast between Earnhardt's early days in Sprint Cup and his more recent years is confounding. In his first 200 starts as a full-time Cup racer -- driving for his father's old Dale Earnhardt Inc. team -- Earnhardt picked up 16 victories. In his 197 starts for Hendrick Motorsports, the richest and best organization in the sport, Earnhardt has won twice. This despite the fact that Earnhardt is obviously a talented driver who has elevated his commitment to getting better.
Earnhardt likely will always be a fan favorite as long as he is in the sport, and certainly as long as he is a top-10 driver. But the reality is, Earnhardt will turn 40 next year and his championship chances might soon start to fade. It is time for him to take that final step from being good to being great. It is time for some excitement.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- New rule: Johnson has to start every race in last place, just to make things interesting. Johnson started 43rd at New Hampshire on Sunday after his car failed post-qualifying inspection, and then methodically worked his way through the field for a 6th-place finish. It was Johnson's fourth consecutive top-10 and his series-best 13th of the season.
2. Kevin Harvick (3rd) -- Since crashing at Talladega two months ago and finishing 40th, Harvick has ripped off nine consecutive top-10s. The only drawback for Harvick lately is he has failed to lead a single lap in the past six races.
3. Clint Bowyer (2nd) -- Bowyer had a disappointing 13th-place finish at New Hampshire, a track where he has picked up two of his eight career Sprint Cup victories. Still, Bowyer extended his streak of consecutive top-20s to 14.
4. Kyle Busch (5th) -- Busch's runner-up showing at New Hampshire was the 11th time this season he has finished in the top 6, a number matched only by Johnson. The only mistake Busch made Sunday was blaming Ryan Newman for a wreck that took out Busch's brother, Kurt, when it was obvious that Newman did nothing wrong in the incident.
5. Matt Kenseth (4th) -- Kenseth might be tied with Johnson for the most victories this season (4), but his ninth-place showing at New Hampshire was only his third top-10 in the past eight races. For a driver known for his calm, steady demeanor, Kenseth has been surprisingly erratic this year.
6. Carl Edwards (6th) -- Edwards has become somewhat of a forgotten man in recent weeks. Like Kenseth, he has only three top-10s in the past eight races. But unlike Kenseth (and most of the other legitimate championship contenders), Edwards has not been to victory lane since the second race of the season.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th) -- Earnhardt certainly isn't a forgotten man, but he hasn't been doing much lately to garner attention on the track. Earnhardt has managed only one top-10 finish in the past five races, with an average finish of 16.6 during that span.
8. Tony Stewart (8th) -- Stewart took a hit in the points when he ran out of gas near the end of Sunday's race and dropped from a potential victory all the way to a 26th-place finish. But in terms of his overall performance in recent months, Stewart remains solidly in the top 10.
9. Greg Biffle (9th) -- Biffle is one more mediocre race away from dropping out of the top 10 of the Power Rankings, and possibly the point standings as well. Despite being eighth in the points, Biffle has managed only three top-10s over the past 12 races.
10. Brad Keselowski (10th) -- There are about a half-dozen drivers who could occupy the final spot in the Power Rankings, including Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. For now we will go with the defending series champion, who sat on the pole at New Hampshire and finished fourth for his first top-10 in six weeks.