Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway -- his third of the season and the most on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series -- has everyone wondering whether the son of a legend is about to forge his own niche in stock car racing.
It's still plenty early, and there is much uncertainty about how NASCAR's new points system will affect the championship, but this much is certain: 11 races in, Earnhardt has a firm grip on first place.
In his fourth full season at 29, Earnhardt has become NASCAR's most popular driver. He came to Richmond with a 25-point lead in series-championship points and expanded his lead over Jimmie Johnson to 40 as the series heads to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., for Saturday's All-Star Challenge.
Earnhardt not only is winning, he is finishing up front even when he doesn't have a great car underneath him. He is tied with Johnson for the series lead in top-five finishes with seven, and has finished out of the top 10 only three times.
"We're as hungry as every other team in the garage," said Earnhardt, whose father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won seven Cup championships before he was killed in a crash at Daytona in 2001. "There's no argument within 500 miles of this place that we're not a contender this year. We have a really good team.
"They were talking about us bouncing back after a bad run last week [at California Speedway] and if that shows signs of a championship team."
Earnhardt's latest victory was the result of a well-calculated gamble. He stayed out on worn tires when race leader Tony Stewart pitted for fresh ones with 55 laps remaining. Johnson and Jeff Gordon also stayed out. Earnhardt took the lead when the green flag was waved with 45 laps to go, and not only did he stay there, he actually pulled away, despite driving on tires that were 105 laps old.
Crew chief Tony Eury "actually told me to pit, but I didn't hear him," Earnhardt said. "I thought I would have Jimmie Johnson on the inside of me the rest of the race trying to pass me. [But] we just drove away."
Double Duty for R. Gordon
Last week was especially long for driver Robby Gordon, who, for the third consecutive year, will attempt to win the Indy Racing League's Indianapolis 500 and Nextel Cup's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, May 30.
The former Indy Car star and current full-time driver of the No. 31 Chevy on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit began accumulating frequent flyer miles Wednesday, driving his Indy car during practice at Indianapolis, and flying to Richmond, where he drove both his Nextel Cup and Busch Series cars in practice. On Thursday afternoon in Richmond, Gordon qualified 10th for the Busch race. On Friday, still in Richmond, Gordon qualified sixth for the Nextel Cup race, practiced in his Cup car, then drove in the Busch race that night (he finished 19th).
On Saturday morning, Gordon was back in Indianapolis for pole qualifying, which was delayed three hours by rain. Because of time constraints, Gordon was forced to settle for a lackluster qualifying lap that nonetheless was good enough to put him in the Indianapolis 500 field. Minutes after climbing out of his car, he was en route to Richmond for Saturday night's Nextel Cup race, arriving for the required 5:30 p.m. drivers' meeting with no time to spare.
The competitive portion of his Cup race in Richmond, though, took an early hit when, on the second lap, his left front tire was cut. On Lap 136, Gordon hit the wall and suffered minor front end damage and finished 24th.
Stewart Makes No Friends
The list of drivers accusing Stewart of driving recklessly grew at Richmond.
Stewart, driver of the Joe Gibbs-owned No. 20 Chevrolet, was involved in another bumping incident Saturday night, when he slid up the track and into Jeff Gordon's fender while racing for third place with 40 laps remaining. Stewart wound up fourth and Gordon, in the No. 24 Chevrolet, dropped to sixth. Afterward, Gordon joined Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch in voicing his displeasure with the 2002 Cup champion's recent tactics.
"We're seeing it every weekend," Gordon said. "You think a guy getting abused by the media and other drivers would start thinking a little bit more. . . . He just drove straight into me and put me in the wall and about put himself in the wall. It cost us a top five."
Said Stewart, whose fourth-place finish was just his second top 10 in the seven races: "I had a top-three night until I ran into the 24 car and I know he's mad at me. I just got loose and got into him."
Gibbs, coach of the Washington Redskins, said earlier Saturday that he was not worried about what appears to be becoming a pattern for his driver.
"I think some of those things," Gibbs said, "our group saw it different from how other people saw it."