Junior is back

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 8, 2006

The Dale Earnhardt Jr. we are seeing compete this year is not the same guy we saw struggle last year. His performance at Martinsville last week went a long way toward a spot in the chase this year.

After wrecking on lap two, losing a front fender, and then wrecking again late in the race, Junior finished fourth. His car was beat to heck and back and the Bud team still posted a top-five finish.

There is little doubt that put in that same situation in years past, the outcome would have been vastly different. I think the absence of Tony Eury as Junior’s crew chief last year got too much of the blame for the disappointing season and I think his presence might be getting too much credit for the successes this year.

Don’t get me wrong, Eury has made a difference in this team, but Junior still has to drive the car. Junior seems to be a different driver, a smarter more patient driver.

If not for a late race pit-road penalty at Las Vegas where he finished 27th, Junior would have strung together six straight finishes in the top 11. Junior currently sits sixth in the points standings and with the success that he has had in some of the upcoming tracks, I don’t see him slipping lower.

Nothing can be done about the disastrous 2005 season, but the Bud team has new focus and is trying to prove that Junior is a great racer in his own right, and not riding the coattails of his father, a perception that has dogged Junior his whole career.

After a week of giving up the points lead to Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson left Martinsville back in the lead, 59 points ahead of Mark Martin and 60 points ahead of Kenseth. Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch round out the top-five.

After six races, there are some guys that better start looking at the point standings and their chances of making the chase.

Greg Biffle has had horrible luck so far and sits in 18th position and his Roush teammate Carl Edwards sits in 19th. Both of these guys made the chase last year and can still make it this year, but some solid finishes better be in their future.

Texas Motor Speedway is next on the schedule. There have been ten winners in ten races at this fast mile and a half track. Even though no driver has repeated as winner of a race here, Roush Racing drivers have won five of the ten races since 1997.

Bobby Labonte has performed well at times this year for Petty Enterprises, but his luck has been horrible. With two career poles and without any mechanical problems that have plagued him so far, Labonte could post a solid finish at his home track.

I think we could see a repeat winner for the first time Sunday. The usual suspects will factor into the winner of the race. The Roush cars will be there, so will Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

Dale Jr. is running too well not to win soon, but my pick to win wear the big cowboy hat in victory lane Sunday is Matt Kenseth, becoming the first repeat winner.

Enjoy the race.