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WAID’S WORLD: Streaks Are Good Or Bad, As We Have Seen This Year

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In racing every driver goes through periods that can be wildly successful – or they can be dismally unproductive.

Nearly every driver has experienced these episodes and they have lasted for weeks, months and, yes, even years.

For example, who could have ever imagined that Richard Petty would win twice in 1984 and then not earn a single victory during his remaining nine years of competition?

There are better, timelier examples that have come into focus just five races into the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (it’s coming easier now) season.

I recently wrote about Kyle Larson, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver who has enjoyed a season of remarkable achievement.

After four races Larson had compiled three runnerup finishes and moved to the top of the point standings.

At Fontana, the fifth race of the season, Larson was perfect. He won the pole for the Auto Club 400, followed that with a victory in the XFINITY race and then, the next day, claimed his second career NASCAR Cup victory after a dominant performance. Like I said, Larson was perfect.

In this early stage of the season Larson has a pole, a race victory that is part of four top-five finishes (three of them runnerup) and, finally, an XFINITY win. And he has made the playoffs.

Drivers have held hot hands in the past but I’m not sure any one of them has matched what Larson has done during the first five events of ANY season.

He attributes it all to the convergence of proper circumstances.

“Well, I’m really, you know, fortunate to be driving really fast racecars right now,” he said. “Our cars are by far as good as they’ve ever been, really good at every racetrack right now.

“In both series I feel like I have a shot to win every time I go to the race track. That’s always a lot of fun. That’s always something I’ve hoped for, to get to that point in my NASCAR career.”

I think it is reasonable to say that his many, many fans in the Junior Nation wanted to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. open the season with, at the very least, a highly competitive streak that put him at the forefront of the point standings and in playoff contention.

Even after the Hendrick Motorsports driver sat out 18 races in 2016 following yet another concussion, Earnhardt Jr.’s career has shown us he’s more than capable of success.

And his eagerness to return to competition, fueled by his doctor’s clearance and his own upbeat attitude, indicated that he might do exceptionally well.

That has yet to happen.

Earnhardt Jr. made his 600th career start at Fontana. He’s now in his 18th season in NASCAR Cup competition. He has accumulated 26 career victories and has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 consecutive years.

But, to date this season, he is merely a shadow of the driver with all those achievements.

In five races Earnhardt Jr. has not come close to victory – not to mention a top-10 finish. He began the season with finishes of 37th and 30th at Daytona and Atlanta, respectively.

His average finish has been 22.6, with his highest a 14th at Phoenix. He has led only eight laps all season. He is 21st in points.

Obviously, these are not impressive numbers and not the sort usually associated with Earnhardt Jr.

But the 42-year-old driver remains philosophical.

“Look,” he once said, “I am aging in literal years faster than I am physically and mentally. I feel there are a lot of things I’ve yet to accomplish, not only in racing but in life in general.

“I’m going to continue to do the best I can. I am going to have a lot of fun that I’m not done having.”

I do not know what has caused Earnhardt Jr.’s malady any more than I know what has sparked Larson’s success. I can only theorize.

But what I do know is that what has happened to the two drivers is the sort of thing that occurs regularly in NASCAR.

It’s happened before, it’s happening now and it will happen in the future.

The only real question for both of them is, how long will it last?

Answers will come with time.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.