|Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 National Guard / AMP Energy Chevrolet makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway last week in Richmond, Va. (Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR/AFP)
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was launched with such promise — a 20-year-old rookie winning the Daytona 500 — that many felt it had nowhere to go but down.
But that has not been the case.
Even though Trevor Bayne hasn’t been able to recapture the lightening in a bottle that propelled him into stardom in the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford on that Sunday afternoon in February, NASCAR has produced one of its best seasons in years through the first nine races of 2011.
For the first time in the past five seasons there looks to be a real possibility that someone other than Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will hoist the Sprint Cup at Homestead Miami Speedway in November.
The probable successors include Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, currently third in championship points standings and Kevin Harvick, currently fifth, in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, each with a pair of race victories in the first quarter of this season.
And perennial contender Carl Edwards is putting together the kind of consistent finishes in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford that has him on top of the points ladder — nine points in front of Johnson — after last week’s race at Richmond.
It is who is lurking in fifth place, however, that has both fans and NASCAR bosses drooling about the first quarter results — and that is Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt — son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt — started the season off with a bang, winning the Daytona pole on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death at the Florida superspeedway.
After wrecking his primary car in pre-race practice Earnhardt was still in contention to beat young Bayne until getting caught up in another crash with less than 20 laps to go in the race, finishing a disappointing 24th.
Putting that experience in his rear view mirror, Earnhardt drove the No. 88 HMS Chevrolet to a Top 12 finish in the next seven races, nearly winning at Martinsville before finishing second to Harvick in a last lap duel that was reminiscent of his heady days at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.
While his last win was 102 races ago at Michigan International Speedway in 2008, Earnhardt’s numbers this season put him right in the middle of the fight to dethrone Johnson.
With new crew chief Steve Latarte guiding him this season it seems inevitable Earnhardt will break the winless streak sooner rather than later.
It is that possibility that has been a big part of NASCAR’s spurt in both live attendance and television ratings thus far this season.
Consecutive sell outs at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas and near sellouts at Texas, Talladega and Richmond reverses a worrisome trend of vast acres of empty seats that was the case last season.
Television ratings so far have been up as well for FOX, ESPN and Turner with the numbers showing an average 5.5 Nielsen rating and 9.6 million viewers, giving NASCAR a 5.9% viewership increase.
“We’re pretty pleased (because) just about any metrics you use we’re up,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France told The Sporting News this week. “We’re not resting. It’s competitive (in sports broadcasting) out there.”
On the track the racing has been much more entertaining, with only Harvick and Kyle Busch repeat winners.
According to ESPN’s jayski.com web page, the stats from the first quarter show a record number of passes and lead changes through the first nine races.
“There has been an average of 14.1 leaders per race, the most through nine races in series history,” the web page reported this week. “There has been an average of 35.8 lead changes per race, (also) the most through nine races in series history.”
The list goes on: Four of the nine races have seen the lead-change record broken or tied; six different teams make up the top 10; seven different winners in the first nine races; seven different Coors Light Pole winners in the first nine races and five of the nine races have had a margin of victory under one second, including Talladega, which tied the closest MOV since the inception of electronic timing in 1993 (.002 seconds).
If the second quarter that starts Saturday at Darling (S.C.) Raceway is even near as entertaining, NASCAR will surely be able to leave the doldrums of last season behind.