Track Smack: Is Dale Jr. on brink of career year?
June 12, 2014, David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com
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Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead. In this edition, NASCAR.com's David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Alan Cavanna examine if Dale Earnhardt Jr. will top his six-win season of 2004, whether NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie sensation Kyle Larson will find Victory Lane this season and whether now is the time to start worrying if Kasey Kahne will make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff?
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has multiple victories for the first time since he won six races in 2004, the best season of his career. Is he capable of matching or exceeding that mark?
David Caraviello: Given that we're almost halfway though the season, he has some work to do to get there. But with three plate races left and the No. 88 team churning out strong cars week after week, I don't want to completely dismiss it. At the very least, Dale Jr. has opened it as a possibility, which says something about the season he's enjoying right now.
Alan Cavanna: He's absolutely capable, mainly for the same reason he won Pocono. He's putting himself in position to do it at nearly every race. As simple as it sounds, you can't win if you're not in the top five. That's where Dale Jr. is consistently running.
Kenny Bruce: Six wins? Or more? Man, with the way this season's gone, I'd be hard-pressed to say any driver will have six wins. Not that it can't be done, but the task certainly seems much more difficult this year. I think the way the No. 88 team has performed thus far makes it possible. Just not sure how likely.
Caraviello: Kenny has a point -- wasn't it just a few weeks ago we were arguing whether we'd have more than 16 different winners in the regular season? Probably can't have that and have a guy like Dale Jr. win six times. But either option would be fun to watch.
Bruce: Alan, you're right about the top-five reference. Guys that consistently run there are often the ones that wind up in Victory Lane. Much less likely a team running 10th-to-15th each week emerges with the victory.
Cavanna: I think Dale Jr.'s past plate success seems to hide or diminish what he's capable of on other tracks. His six wins in 2004 came at an equal amount of short tracks, plate tracks and intermediates. He's running that way again this year. But I'll agree with you that six or more checkered flags is tougher. Better competition now. But Matt Kenseth had seven last year, and Denny Hamlin had eight wins back in 2010. So it's possible.
Caraviello: Alan, Dale's more recent years made people forget how good he could be at places like Richmond, or Bristol, or on mile-and-a-half tracks. Historically, the guy's been more well-rounded than he probably gets credit for. Did he and those guys at Dale Earnhardt Inc. catch lightning in a bottle on plate tracks at one point? Sure. But that doesn't mean he can't win anywhere else -- something Pocono reminded us of.
Bruce: He's definitely running better week to week, something we haven't seen in a long, long time. I seriously doubt he's through winning. But how many more they have in the tank is debatable.
Caraviello: So, you boil it down -- how many races has the 88 had a legitimate chance to win this season? Daytona, Las Vegas, Martinsville and Pocono? And Pocono might be the least likely candidate in the bunch, given how it ended. So Dale's been up there a lot. He's giving himself a chance. Six might be a tough ask given the level of competition right now, but four or more seems completely realistic.
Cavanna: The Nation rejoices
Caraviello: You know the 48 team is going to get theirs. The 4 guys are capable of putting a big number in the win column. When it comes to potential victories in bunches, those are the first two programs I look to. So Junior's competition is stout. But he's riding the wave right now, man. You can see it in his attitude.
Bruce: Then again, he's winless at something like nine of the remaining tracks. So it won't get any easier from here on out.
Caraviello: Mr. Cold Water speaks.
2. Kyle Larson scored a fifth-place result last weekend at Pocono, a track he had never competed on before. Is the rookie capable of winning a race?
Cavanna: I've been beating this drum since Fontana, where he finished second. When the series goes back to some of these track a second time, look out. Larson will win this season.
Bruce: I'll be surprised if Larson isn't in Victory Lane by the end of the year. The kid has been so impressive this year. And to get those results with an organization that's not been in contention on a week-to-week basis -- there's something there.
Caraviello: For a guy who is the self-professed "worst shifter in NASCAR" to go out there and make it look easy on a track that demands shifting gears at 180 mph -- that was stout. The kid just oozes talent. You can tell he's got it. It's becoming less a question of if he will win ... than when.
Bruce: Good point, Alan, on second-time-around tracks. That will give a better indication of where Larson, and the No. 42 team, are overall.
Caraviello: Alan, I might argue that Sunday at Pocono was more impressive than what he did at California. Talking to crew chief Chris Heroy after the race, those concerns about him being able to shift gears were legit. And he made it look effortless. He's a very quick study when he puts his mind to things, evidently, and adaptation is such a key every week.
Cavanna: That's what put me so high on Larson, David. His ability to learn and adapt during the race, from beginning to end.
Caraviello: They go back to Pocono for a second time in eight races on Aug. 3. I wonder if he'll still be driving the stick-shift Camaro around town by then? And next up is Michigan -- a 2-mile track much like Fontana, where Kyle ran second behind winner Kyle Busch.
Cavanna: Kenny, I agree with you on the questions of the team and organization. I don't see the 42 car running away with a race just yet. But in a month or two, on a green-white-checkered or late race restart, I'll bet on Larson earning one.
Caraviello: I'll admit to being one of those guys very skeptical of Chip Ganassi putting Kyle in the No. 42 car this year. Clearly, anyone who doubted that he could compete was completely wrong. But this still has to be better than what anyone expected. I mean, rookie Austin Dillon is having a nice, competitive first season in Sprint Cup. But Larson is just at another level right now, and with a program that had been down the previous few years.
Bruce: Of course, there's the other side of this -- once the team is in position to capitalize, can they seal the deal?
Cavanna: If it's a situation like Fontana, I think it's all driver. Beyond that, there will be questions. Like with Dale Jr.'s Pocono win, you have to be in position to win. If the 42 car can be there in the top five, wins will come. In this case I think the driver makes up for any potential shortcomings, especially in the second half of the season.
Bruce: I think the lack of expectations from the outside has something to do with it as well. If they continue to run well and continue to be bombarded with "when will you win" questions ... well, that can get old. I think they're just enjoying the moment. And continuing to improve.
Caraviello: The former New England Regional Quarter-Midget champion always brings great wisdom to the table. As does Mr. Cold Water, who was a little warmer there than I expected.
3. Kasey Kahne endured another tough weekend, crashing at Pocono and finishing 42nd at one of his best tracks. At 21st in points, should he be worried about making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?
Cavanna: Yes. No other way to put it.
Bruce: Most definitely, according to the Magic 8-Ball.
Caraviello: Not sure it's panic switch time for the No. 5 team just yet. One win changes everything, and Kasey is still completely capable of getting that. But when you look at performance compared to the other Hendrick Motorsports teams -- yeah, there's something going on that doesn't just seem right.
Cavanna: If Kahne has to rely on points, he's got to get moving. He's 34 points behind Austin Dillon, with five other drivers in between. Kahne has 11 races to leapfrog them. But as David put it, a win changes everything.
Bruce: All joking aside, the team has the tools to win, but that's not a guarantee. Recall guys such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart missing the Chase -- who could have imagined that? One thing's for sure, if the No. 5 team hopes to make the Chase, the team better get on the ball.
Cavanna: I agree with you, David. Kahne could easily win a race and surprise no one. But the weeks keep going by. I keep picking Kevin Harvick to win thinking "his bad luck has to stop now, right?" And it hasn't.
Caraviello: I've never really been sold on Kahne as the championship-caliber drivers others believe he is, but the best the guy's been all season is 11th in points. He's most certainly better than that, particularly in Hendrick equipment. There's just no consistency to this bunch. They seemed to find something at Kansas, then they go backward again.
Bruce: Not sure what I'd be more focused on, finding the consistency necessary to contend, or shooting for the moon and hoping one win solves all their problems. The first might improve the team, but not get you in the Chase; the second could get you in the Chase, and an early exit.
Caraviello: If we keeping getting more new winners, and one of them isn't the 5 car ... it's easy to envision Kahne being right back on the Chase bubble heading to Richmond, as he seems to be every year. I mean, it speaks volumes when Jimmie Johnson is in the media center at Pocono talking about how the organization's focus at large is getting the 5 team a win. Kasey's got to feel like the black sheep, and not one of those grazing on grass around the solar panels at Pocono.
Cavanna: You have to imagine if it gets late in the season and it's not looking good, Hendrick Motorsports will throw every resource possible at the 5 car.
Bruce: If I'm the 48, 88 or 24, I don't know how I'd feel about that.
Caraviello: Hey, they've gotten four cars into the Chase two years running. I'm sure Rick Hendrick wants to keep the streak going -- without needing an asterisk this time.
Bruce: I agree, DC, but at the expense of the other three? So is it more important to win a championship, or get all of your teams in the Chase? Just glad I don't have to make that call.
Caraviello: That's the decision of the guy paying the expenses to begin with -- the one wearing the cap with the slanted H on the front. As for Kahne, my Magic 8-Ball says reply is hazy, try again.