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Junior’s last ride(s)

Posted by Eric Fisher On June 1

NASCAR is trying to build itself back up on the strength of young drivers such as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano, all of whom are in the top 10 in the standings. But many of the fans who flock to Dover this Sunday for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism will be rooting for the 23rd-place driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt announced that he will retire after this year. That leaves precious few opportunities to see NASCAR’s most popular driver.

Earnhardt made his decision after missing the second half of last season with a concussion. The length of time it took for his symptoms to dissipate likely influenced Junior’s decision.

Dover International Speedway hasn’t been particularly kind to Junior. He only has one career victory there, a memorable win on Sept. 23, 2001, in NASCAR’s first race after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His only strong showing at the Monster Mile the past several years was a third-place finish in 2015.

If past history is an indication of future success, Earnhardt has a better chance to win the following Sunday at Axalta presents the Pocono 400. Junior won both races there in 2014.

Although we’re not quite halfway through the segment of the NASCAR season in which drivers qualify for the playoffs (it’s not called The Chase any longer), Earnhardt is far enough off the pace that it appears he will need a victory to make the playoff field. In addition to being winless, Junior has not accumulated any stage wins or playoff points. And he is far enough back in the standings that it will take a tremendous turnaround during the next few months for Earnhardt to qualify for the playoffs without winning a race.

Martin Truex Jr., with two victories and six stage wins, is in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Larson is just five points behind Truex, and there is a 77-point gap to third place, occupied by Brad Keselowski. Between Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, each of whom have two victories, there are winless drivers Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray and Elliott. They are all in pretty good shape, but they would like to take the suspense out of making the playoffs by winning a race.

Another driver who is winless is Matt Kenseth, the defending AAA Drive for Autism 400 champion. Kenseth is in 15th place in the standings, which puts him pretty close to the playoff bubble.

Kenseth is also part of the old guard that is trying to compete with the younger drivers. That old guard is gradually driving off into the sunset, with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon having retired during the past few years.

Earnhardt is next. Dover fans would love to see him reach Victory Lane at the Monster Mile one more time before he’s done.


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