As the NASCAR world celebrates – or in some cells maligns – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, there is quieter activity that is taking place amidst the hoopla of late.
Before Earnhardt Jr.’s win all eyes were on Hendrick Motorsports for its all-important 200th win. Jimmie Johnson pulled that off at Darlington before the All-Star break in May.
Next was the debate over when Kasey Kahne would score his first win for Hendrick. That came at Charlotte in the Coca Cola 600.
Johnson won again in Dover, continuing Hendrick’s forward momentum, which prompted many rumblings that this indeed was another year for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to win a championship.
Joey Logano’s victory at Pocono followed. It was a good thing for Logano’s struggling Cup career, but it did little to sway the belief that Hendrick was in the hunt.
Then came Earnhardt Jr.’s win at MIS. After a four-year, 143-race drought, and a solid 2012 season that has seen him finish among the top 10 more than any other driver, Earnhardt Jr. finally won. Jubilation set in immediately for him, his team, and the countless fans of the “Junior Nation” that steadfastly, patiently and unconditionally supports their driver.
But that’s not the real story if one looks at the situation from afar. Once enough distance is made and the balloons and confetti are cleared, it is evident the story isn’t Johnson, Kahne, or even prodigal son Earnhardt Jr.
It’s all about the man known as “The Silent Assassin,” Matt Kenseth.
While fans of the Hendrick drivers have had much to celebrate of late, their drivers have not once been in the Sprint Cup points lead this season. Roush-Fenway driver Greg Biffle dominated in the top spot for most of the first part of the season, and now teammate Kenseth has tacitly ascended to the position.
Kenseth currently has one win this season, at the celebrated Daytona 500. His consistency, which is widely recognized, has bolstered him to the top of the points after Pocono this year.
Kenseth has eight top-fives and 11 top-10s this season.
Now, Earnhardt Jr. has one win amid a consistent season with six top-fives and 12 top-10s. He sits comfortably four points behind Kenseth.
These men are not unaccustomed to this scenario. Throughout their NASCAR careers, from the Busch Series through Cup, they have found themselves in direct competition with one another.
In 1998 and 1999 Earnhardt Jr. won back-to-back Busch Series championships, edging out Kenseth.
Kenseth beat out Earnhardt Jr. for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in Cup in 2000.
Kenseth is the only one to have Cup title. He earned his in 2003. That season, with Kenseth’s one win and domination of the points lead for an unprecedented 33 weeks, led directly to the implementation of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Now these two competitors are neck and neck. They are once again becoming NASCAR’s primary rivals and a battle on the tracks is taking shape.
Consistency is definitely key for a championship and both of these drivers are proving that week in and week out. But, as history has shown, consistency plus wins is the formula that creates a title.
Do either of these drivers have what it takes to hoist the NASCAR Sprint Cup at season’s end – or will Johnson, Biffle, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski have something to say about it?
We’ll just have to keep watching to find out, obviously.