TALLADEGA, Ala. — After a deflating start to the season and only one win at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since late 2014, it’s easy to see why some suggest this could be a must-win weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs.
Just don’t count him among that group.
“I don’t buy the notion that we can’t win anywhere but Talladega or Daytona,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he has scored six of his 26 career Cup wins. “We have had a dry spell, haven’t won a lot of races. We have won at other tracks in the past. I think if I go in thinking this is a must-win, then I’m probably going to get in there and make a few mistakes.’’
Earnhardt enters this weekend 24th in the points. He is 60 points — the maximum number of points a driver can score in a race — out of what is the final playoff spot at this time.
Five finishes of 30th or worse this season have put Earnhardt in this situation. Some of it has been bad luck, some of it has been mistakes that put him in a bad spot.
He led the Daytona 500 when Kyle Busch cut a tire in front of him and spun. Earnhardt clipped Busch’s car and did enough damage to his car that he was done for the race, placing 37th.
A speeding penalty dropped Earnhardt to the rear of the field at Martinsville and then he was collected in a crash, finishing 34th. Last week, crew chief Greg Ives kept him out while most of the field pitted. Earnhardt was running at the front but was on older tires. He was knocked into the wall when teammate Jimmie Johnson, unaware Earnhardt was on the outside, went up the groove and slammed Earnhardt’s car. Earnhardt continued but finished 30th.
What’s been disconcerting at times is that Earnhardt’s car hasn’t shown top-form speed. It’s an issue some of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have had this season even with Johnson’s two wins.
Some have raised questions about Earnhardt’s playoff hopes just a third of the way thought the regular season because of his recent record. He has three wins since late 2014. One win was at Daytona, another at Talladega and the other at Phoenix (shortened by rain). Since 2008, Earnhardt has seven wins and they’ve been at Daytona (two), Talladega, Pocono (two), Phoenix and Martinsville.
Earnhardt isn’t focused on that. He views this weekend as an opportunity but knows a win won’t come easy at Talladega even for him.
“I just know what I need to do,’’ he said. “I’ve said it in the past. You’ve got to run the last 50 laps mistake-free and the guy that does that will win the race. That means choosing the right line to move up and take the run. Every move and decision, every slight turn of the wheel has to be the right decision.’’
He says he knows what kind of mindset he needs to succeed Sunday. He notes that in his 2014 Daytona 500 win, he was racing Greg Biffle for position and ran him aggressively. That’s what he’ll have to do Sunday.
“The only way I could keep myself from sliding backwards was to run like one inch off the door and squeeze him against the wall,’’ Earnhardt said of his battle with Biffle. “It really kind of killed both of our cars. But at least he wasn’t passing me.
“It was a bit outside of character for me to drive so much like a jerk, I guess, but that’s what you’re got to do. You’ve got to keep on cracking the whip, keep telling yourself, ‘This is what has to happen, this is how I have to do this to make this work if I want to win.’
“I can’t accept him taking the lead, maybe losing a couple of spots and falling to fourth and thinking, ‘Man, I’ll just get it back.’ That’s not as easy anymore. The cars are too equal.
“You have to be way more aggressive to holding positions and defending positions, and you’ve got to run guys tight and they don’t like it. Nobody likes somebody hanging on their quarter panel because it doesn’t feel good and it makes the cars act weird. You have to do it that way. You have to start the race really with the attitude. You’ve go to be willing to work every single lap and not settle for riding.’’
That’s the mindset he’ll have to have Sunday if he hopes to score a win and earn a playoff spot.
Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.
When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.
From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.
Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.
When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.
So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.
Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.
Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.
The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format has changed over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.
“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”
Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.
RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.
“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”
Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.
The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.
As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.
“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”
RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.
RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.
Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.
The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.
“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”
The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.
“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”
Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.
RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Before getting too worried by Blaney’s drought, remember that the season is only six races old. Two of those six races were superspeedway events, and a third was a road course where running through other cars has become the norm.
With 30 more races in the season, it’s far from time to hit the panic button.
Basic statistics suggest that Blaney is matching (and sometimes beating) his teammate, defending champion Joey Logano. I’ve included the statistics for sophomore driver Austin Cindric in the table below, as well.
Things would appear to look good for breaking Blaney’s losing streak this year.
But a different pattern emerges upon diving into the loop data. The next table compares more detailed statistics for all three Penske drivers. I’ve highlighted the lowest-scoring driver’s numbers in red for each metric.
Cindric lags his more experienced teammates in number of laps led, number of fastest laps and number of laps run in the top 15. But in the other stats, Blaney is the third out of three at Penske.
Average running position measures driver performance across all laps of a race, instead of just the last one. Blaney’s best average running position of the season was at Phoenix, with a 7.47. His worst was last week at COTA, where his average running position was 29.28. Apart from Phoenix, Blaney didn’t break the top 10 in average running position at any race this year.
The average speed-on-restarts rank compares a driver’s average speed in the first two laps of each green-flag run to other drivers’ speeds. Blaney ranks 32nd out of 35 full-time drivers in average restart speed rank. That places him behind Logano and Cindric.
Speed early in a run and speed late in a run measure a driver’s speed compared to everyone else on track during the first and last 25% of each green-flag run. In both metrics, Blaney again ranks 32 out of 35.
The fact that top-ranking Penske driver Logano only ranks 12th and 16th in early and late speed respectively suggests that the problem is at least partly company wide.
In overall green-flag speed — the average speed over a full green-flag run — Blaney ranks 29th out of 35. Logano ranks 12th and Cindric 19th.
These numbers identify one challenge that must be overcome to break Blaney’s losing streak.
Year over year
I’ll set aside Cindric’s numbers in this section for the sake of clarity. Blaney’s first six races this year show a large drop-off in most metrics relative to the first six races of 2022. Logano, however, either improved or stayed relatively constant in the same metrics.
In the table below:
Green indicates a 10% or better improvement in 2023.
Red indicates the 2023 value is at least 10% worse.
Black indicates a change (either way) less than 10%.
Blaney has led a little more than 10% of the laps he led in 2022 and has less than half the number of fastest laps. His drop-offs on the speed metrics (the last four rows) are much greater than Logano’s changes.
In 2022, Blaney was beating Logano in all four speed metrics. This year, Logano is ahead.
The Promise of Richmond
The encouraging news to pull from this analysis is that Blaney’s numbers for Phoenix are the best of the 2023 season so far. He ranked seventh in green-flag speed, second in restart rank, eight in early-run speed and fourth in late-run speed. All of that bodes well for a good finish at Richmond.
Blaney won the pole in last spring’s Richmond race and finished seventh. He finished 10th in the fall race after qualifying 10th.
And Blaney himself is optimistic.
“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation,” Blaney said. “So I’m optimistic for it, for sure. I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team, and I’m excited to get there.”
But breaking Blaney’s losing streak is only the start to a successful season. He must improve his speed metrics at other tracks if he is to contend for a championship.
Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart but left the inside lane open. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.
As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to drive by and costing Suarez a top-five finish. Suarez finished 27th.