Junior Moves in the Right Direction

That collective sigh of relief you heard Sunday night at about 8:35 on the east coast? That would’ve been Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his legion of fans finally exhaling. And if 10th place is the kind of result Jimmie Johnson normally spits on, it constitutes sweet relief for Junior.

After a controversial and thoroughly unnecessary 27th at Daytona, when he undid himself with two inexcusable pitroad mistakes, and a disappointing 39th in week two at California (the result of a blown engine), Junior entered Sunday’s Vegas race in 35th place overall and faced with lingering questions about both his near-term performance and his long-range prospects of ever winning a championship and somehow justifying the attention he receives.

And when still another pitroad blunder at Las Vegas — too fast on entering, admittedly an infraction that nailed more than a few drivers in both the Sprint and Nationwide races — dropped the No. 88 to 31st and one lap down, you could plainly see the outline of the Junior sucks/is overrated/will never win a championship stories sure to be written this week.

Thankfully, exactly none of those stories will be written; and, frankly, even if they had been, none of them would have been enough to threaten his position as NASCAR’s most popular driver. Why? The answer to that is simple, and can be understood better by hearing his typical-but-classic-post-race answer to an obvious question about his latest pitroad brain cramp: "Oh, I just keep giving everybody ammunition," he said after the race.

So the hard-earned and much-appreciated 10th lifts Earnhardt to 29th in the standings; nothing to write home about, but it does provide some breathing room as far as the all-important top-35 rule is concerned. Moreover, with Atlanta and Bristol, tracks he’s won at, next on the schedule, there’s reason for optimism.

"We really, really needed [that finish]," he said, understating the severity of things. "We know that we need to put together about six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We’ve got some good tracks in a row here where we can do that. We’ve just got to keep our heads on straight. We’ve just got to be smart."