Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sits in third place in the Sprint Cup standings after last week’s victory at Pocono Raceway. He also won the season-opening Daytona 500. He qualified third for today’s race at MIS. Blade/Lori King
BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has been the de facto poster child for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series during the course of his auto racing career.
As of late, that perception seems to have magnified.
Never mind that he’s the son of a NASCAR legend. Earnhardt is third in the Sprint Cup driver points standings and he solidified his chances for a spot in the Chase for the Championship with a win last weekend at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.
“We’re really happy with how we performed and felt worthy of winning that race,” Earnhardt said. “We felt like we’re that kind of team that can go out there and win multiple races and compete very well. I’ve felt for a while now that we were right on the brink of something good, something new, and hopefully that’s what we are seeing this year. Hopefully, we can get even better.”
Now, the question becomes if Earnhardt will be able to carry last week’s consistency from the “Tricky Triangle” to Michigan International Speedway’s two-mile oval.
The 39-year-old enters today’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway with top-10 finishes in three of his last four races, and starts today’s Sprint Cup race with some super-hero status; his No. 88 Chevrolet has been emblazoned with the red-and-yellow Superman crest on the hood, part of a promotion between DC Comics and Hendrick Motorsports.
“My race fans were a little curious as to why we needed to have Superman back on the car [in May at Charlotte],” said Earnhardt, who also drove Saturday in the Nationwide Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 250. “We are here to prove this weekend that he belongs on the hood and that we can do some great things and, hopefully, win the race this weekend.”
Earnhardt aims for his third win of 2014 on a track that’s known for speed. Kevin Harvick won the pole Friday and set a qualifying-lap record of 204.557 miles an hour, one of 21 drivers with a qualifying speed of more than 200 miles an hour — a group that included Earnhardt, who qualified third (203.729) behind Harvick and Jeff Gordon (203.776).
“I think, ‘how fast is too fast?’ ” Harvick said. “It’s the perfect storm with the pavement, with the cars in qualifying trim. The cars will slow down a tremendous amount when we get them in race trim and in a pack. They’ll slow down. Qualifying speeds are high, but it’s just a matter of whose opinion is taken on whether it’s too fast or not.”
The pace continued to blister during Saturday morning’s practice session, one of two Sprint Cup sessions. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson — who is winless in 24 races at MIS — had the top lap speed of 202.054, while Kyle Larson ran a lap of 198.424 in the afternoon session.
“It’s a really smooth, high-speed, different Michigan than what it was the first seven years I came here and raced,” said Kasey Kahne, who qualified 13th for today’s race. “I think there will be a little less grip, which, hopefully, should open up the race track and give us more opportunity to make passes because the track is a lot grayer than it was last year.”
Earnhardt, however, hasn’t fared well at MIS as of late, finishing 37th in last year’s Quicken Loans 400 (engine failure) and 36th in last August’s Pure Michigan 400 (tire blowout).
If Earnhardt aims for consistency, it won’t come down to superpowers. It will come down to technical aspects.
“We blew a tire in a race last year, blew a right front and hit a wall,” Earnhardt said. “We blew a motor at the other race. We were running well in both events, leading one and running in the top 10 in the other. So I feel like we can be competitive here, and we’ll just have to be real conservative on our right front camber, air pressures and things like that to make sure the tire lives.”