Brooklyn, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is competing for the final time at Michigan International Speedway this weekend and he took the track for qualifying Friday afternoon, just minutes after talking about his career … and about unflattering comments made about him by Kevin Harvick earlier in the week.
Dale Jr., the son of the late legendary seven-time Monster series champion Dale Earnhardt, has won 26 races, including a pair of Daytona 500 wins (2004, ’14) and as many victories at the two-mile superspeedway at MIS, ending a 143-race winless streak in 2012 and a 76-race winless streak in ’08. He has never won a Monster series championship.
Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, won the pole for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 with a lap of 203.097 miles-per-hour in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford with Penske teammate Joey Logano (203.063) joining him on the front row. Harvick will start third in his No. 4 Busch Light Ford with Dale Jr. starting 19th in his No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet.
Harvick said on SiriusXM earlier this week he felt the sport’s growth “has not reached the levels that it should have because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver.”
Dale Jr. has won the series’ Most Popular Driver Award 14 times (2003-16) and has a net worth of approximately $300 million. Harvick, who actually competed for Dale Jr.’s Xfinity Cup team — JR Motorsports — from 2014-16, has 36 Monster Cup victories and the 2014 series championship for Stewart-Haas Racing.
After Dale Earnhardt died tragically in the 2001 Daytona 500 while driving for Richard Childress, Harvick was called upon by Childress to start his career with the team and won his first race at Atlanta three weeks later.
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver for however many years in a row, and he has been our sport’s most popular driver, but he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said, knowing that title belongs to Dale Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson who has 83 career victories and seven series championship.
“I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans, and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports.”
No, Dale Jr. did not match his father’s 76 victories or seven Monster Cup series championships, but he did win a pair of Xfinity series championship (1998, ’99) before taking the next step and competing in the ultimate series in 1999, starting with the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte. He announced his retirement earlier this season after suffering concussions which had him missing multiple races last year.
Dale Jr. sits 23rd in points and will need a win in the next four races to earn a spot in the playoffs for the right to battle for the series championship during the final 10 races. Harvick has a win to put himself in the playoff hunt.
Despite Harvick’s recent comments, Dale Jr. still has high praise for him.
“I would appreciate a conversation, if we could have a conversation about it,” said Dale Jr. of possibility of talking with Harvick. “I know Kevin and have known him for a long time and I feel like it would be great to sit down and discuss what he said and what he meant, find some common ground.
“I’m sure it’s easy to take it a number of ways. It could have been taken differently. I think it definitely probably upset some of the veteran guys. I said on my podcast that if you’ve got a healthy program with great corporate sponsorship and great manufacturer support you should be able to control your worth and be able to get the kind of deal you want. The environment for some of these teams has become a lot more challenging over the last couple of years. But, that might be where some of his frustration comes from and why he decided to make the comments he made.
“I think a lot of the guy and there’s no denying what he did for our company (JR Motorsports in Xfinity series) over those few years. We were in a good place, but he put us to another level. He changed how everyone in the company thought, how to get cars better. He brought really a great mentality to the company that’s still there today. We enjoyed a lot of wins together so I’d certainly like to clear it up, but just between ourselves.”
Keselowski was thrilled with his 14th career pole. He now has his sights set on his first Monster Cup win at MIS.
“It feels pretty good,” Keselowski said of winning the pole. “I’m not really known as a great qualifier so maybe over time I’ve probably put a little less stock into qualifying, but I can tell you that when I saw that we were going to win the pole over the last few seconds of qualifying that it put chills down my body.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s a special track for me to have any kind of success at. Any success you have at your home track is right there with having success in the biggest races of the year like Daytona for the 500 and the championship.”
9:30 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, qualifying
1 p.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LTi Printing 200, FS1
3 p.m., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pure Michigan 400, NBCSN