He's faster now, that much is clear. But there is still one big question about Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Can the driver of the No. 88 Chevy, whose stellar performance in the first six races of the 2012 season has been the biggest story in NASCAR, maintain his pace and become a credible title contender for the first time since he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008?
For Earnhardt, who is currently second in the points standings behind Greg Biffle, this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway will be telling. Why? Because Texas is a 1.5-mile track, and half of the venues in the Chase are run on these intermediate-length tracks. So to win the title you need to perform well at places like Texas.
Look at last fall's race in the Lone Star State. The eventual Cup champion, Tony Stewart, took the checkered flag last Nov. 6th at Texas. The second place finisher was Carl Edwards, who, had he been able to pass Stewart that afternoon, would have won the title. It was no coincidence that the two top drivers in last year's playoffs were the two top drivers at Texas.
In recent years Earnhardt has been good -- not great -- on this track. He has three top-10 finishes in his last four starts at Texas but hasn't cracked the top-five since 2004, which was Earnhardt's best season on the circuit, when he won a career-high six race. In fact, 2004 was the last time the rank-and-file in the garage considered Earnhardt a threat to win the championship.
You never want to extrapolate too much about a driver or a team from one regular-season race, but I think Saturday night is important for Earnhardt -- and not just because he's riding a career-worst 135-race winless streak. At Texas Earnhardt, whose confidence behind the wheel has been shaky for years, has a chance to prove that he can run wheel-to-wheel with the likes of Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson at tracks that are critical to winning the Cup championship.
So Sunday could be a statement day for Earnhardt. He already has almost as many top-five finishes in 2012 (three) as he had all of last season (four). If he can reel off another top-five run at Texas, even the Earnhardt bashers -- and there are plenty in the crowd every week, even though Little E remains NASCAR's most popular driver -- would have to admit that he's close to being where he was in 2004: one of the fastest drivers in the series.
Here are four other drivers to keep an eye on as the laps wind down on Sunday:
Dating back to last fall, Stewart has won seven of the last 16 Cup races. Yes, even though he's 40, Stewart is still in his racing prime.
Currently third in points with an average finish of 10.2 this season, Stewart should be fast on Sunday. He thoroughly dominated the last time the Cup series stopped at Texas, leading a race-high 173 laps and taking the checkered flag. If he doesn't finish in the top five, consider it an upset.
So far in 2012 Biffle has been the most consistent driver in NASCAR. Though he hasn't won a race, he's recorded a series best four top-10 finishes and has excelled at keeping his No. 16 Ford out of harm's way. It's not the most thrilling way to leap to the top of the standings, but it could very well be the recipe Biffle uses to win the regular-season points championship.
Biffle excels at Texas. He's recorded three straight top-five finishes at the 1.5-mile track -- he's the only driver in the series to do that -- and he captured the pole here last fall. So if Biffle is going to reach Victory Lane anytime soon, I think it will be on Sunday. He's my pick to take the checkers.
Busch has been one of NASCAR's biggest disappointments through the first six races of 2012. A preseason favorite to win his first championship, Busch has endured mechanical failures and pit road gaffes and made a few uncharacteristic mistakes behind the wheel, which explains why he's now 16th in points.
But everyone in the garage -- and I mean, everyone -- expects him to turn around his season soon. Busch has never won at Texas, but he's led laps here in five of the last eight starts. I've got a hunch that he'll have a top-three run on Sunday.
Hamlin, who is seventh in the standings, already has one victory this season and his new crew chief, Darien Grubb, was atop Tony Stewart's pit box last November when Stewart reached Victory Lane here. So with Grubb calling the shots and leaning on his setup notes from last year, Hamlin should be very, very strong Sunday at Texas, where he's won two of the last four Cup races.