Off to best start of his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proving he’s for real in 2014

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Second may be the first loser, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing second in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway was a continuation of the best season start in his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

After winning his second Daytona 500 last Sunday, Earnhardt in the following days went on a monumental victory lap across the country to celebrate with media and fans across the country.

And while sleep was rare this past week as he jetted from town to town, Earnhardt was wide awake and on top of his game in Sunday’s race.

He could have potentially made it two wins in a row, but Kevin Harvick held him off on the final lap to relegate Junior to runner-up status.

Granted, there are still 34 races left, but a first and second place finish in the first two events, coupled with Earnhardt remaining atop the Sprint Cup standings, bodes well for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years.

That he did well at Phoenix was not exactly a surprise, per se. Earnhardt used to do very well at the one-mile flat track.

In four straight races from 2002 through the spring race in 2005, Earnhardt drove his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 to two wins and two other top-five finishes.

Ironically, when he move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Junior began a performance nosedive at PIR.

From his first race in 2008 under the Hendrick banner through the end of 2012 – 10 races in total – Earnhardt managed no wins and just three top-10s.

But things began to turn around last year in a big way. In the second race of 2013, he started 21st and finished fifth. In last year’s fall Chase race, the second-to-last race of the season, he started 11th and finished fourth.

And then came Sunday. He started fifth, ran in the top-five almost the entire race and came home with a solid second-place finish.

Is Junior really and truly for real in 2014?

So far, so good, it would appear.

“I hope everybody enjoyed the race,” Earnhardt said. “We were really working out butts of there and giving it everything we had.”

And they most certainly did a good job, indeed.

While some cynics looked at Phoenix as a better measuring stick if Earnhardt is for real after his win at Daytona, next Sunday’s race in Las Vegas may actually be the best measuring stick of all.

Earlier in his career, he excelled on 1.5-mile tracks. But much like the way his early good fortune at PIR morphed to misfortune for several years, such has been the case for Earnhardt over the last few years, as well.

He began to climb out of the void last season. Even though he didn’t win a race in 2013, he did very well on several 1.5-mile or larger tracks: including fifth at Las Vegas, second at Fontana (a 2.0-mile track), 12th at Kentucky and eighth at Atlanta.

But it was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that Earnhardt took things to a whole other level, especially in the closing stages of the season.

In addition to a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire and runner-up at Dover, he was eighth at Kansas, 15th at Charlotte, second at Talladega, eighth at Martinsville, second at Texas, fourth at Phoenix and third in the season finale at Homestead.

That’s why what Junior has done thus far in the first two races in 2014 isn’t all that much of a surprise in many ways.

He was a win waiting to happen last season, which he finally got a little late last week at Daytona. And other than eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt was the most consistent driver during last year’s Chase.

“I think we just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year,” Earnhardt said. “We were running well in the Chase.  I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season.”

And that’s why there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t pick up in 2014 where he left off in 2013.

And that’s exactly what he has done. He has a great chance to win for the first time at Las Vegas and keep his outstanding start to this season going.

“(Crew chief Steve Letarte) and those guys just keep getting better and better,” Earnhardt said. “These cars I’m driving I think are the best in the garage.”

And it certainly helps when you have the best driver in the garage thus far this season behind the wheel.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Penske, Roush voted into NASCAR Hall of Fame, but earned first success in other forms of motorsports

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Roger Penske and Jack Roush, who both began their own racing and team ownership careers — in open-wheel and sports car competition for Penske and drag racing and sports cars for Roush — were named Wednesday to the 2019 induction class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The duo will join Jeff Gordon and the late Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki when the 2019 Class is formally inducted into the Hall on February 1, 2019, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

MORE: Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame class

While they’re being honored for their success in NASCAR, here are some of the highlights of both Penske’s and Roush’s highly-successful careers, including outside of NASCAR, as well:

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Penske, 81, has been involved in motorsports for over six decades. He began racing at the age of 19 in 1958 and quickly became a prolific presence behind the wheel.

However, his driving career lasted just seven years until he retired in 1965 to concentrate on building both his business empire, as well as established Penske Racing (later renamed Team Penske) in 1966, making its debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona (now known as the Rolex 24 Hours).

The most notable success Penske has earned as a team owner is a record 16 Indianapolis 500 victories between 1972 (Mark Donohue won) and 2015 (Juan Pablo Montoya).

Penske has four drivers entered in this Sunday’s Indy 500: 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, 2016 IndyCar champ Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who is attempting to win a fourth 500, which would tie him for most wins in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Being named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame adds another honor to a lengthy list of milestones for Penske, including induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1998), the Motorsports Hall of Fame (1995) of America, Auto Racing Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame (2015).

Team Penske has won 200 Indy car races (most recent win was Will Power’s triumph on May 12 in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis), as well as 10 USAC open-wheel championships, as well as three IndyCar Series titles.

He also has 108 NASCAR Cup (including two Daytona 500s) and 65 Xfinity Series wins as a team owner, as well as one championship in each series, including the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski.

In total, Team Penske’s has earned 489 major race wins across all series and 556 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

He also was an early owner of Michigan International Speedway and led construction of Auto Club Speedway. He was also involved in the operation of several other facilities including Nazareth Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and North Carolina Speedway.

Here are some comments from some of Penske’s current and former IndyCar drivers on his induction into NASCAR’s shrine:

Rick Mears (Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, three-time INDYCAR Champion, 29 INDYCAR wins): “It’s been an incredible relationship between myself and Roger since day one. Roger never pressured me from the moment I met him. There was never a time he came and said ‘you need to do this.’ He always let me do things at my pace. He never pressured me to be a great driver up front. He let me learn at my pace. And that is the type of person Roger Penske is.

“This is an incredible honor for someone who has been such a big part of my life, and the lives of so many within the racing industry. It’s not always about race wins and championships, but the type of influence you are able to have on people. Roger has always prided himself on his people. He will be the first to tell you he would never be where he is now without the people he had around him.  And that humility and humbleness is what makes him a great leader. I am really excited for him and for this honor. To be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame is something that is so deserving of so many people, but very few are more deserving for what they have done for the sport and for so many people within the sport than Roger Penske.”

Sam Hornish Jr. (2006 Indianapolis 500 Champion, 2006 INDYCAR Champion, 3 NASCAR XFINITY Series wins): “For me, driving for Roger Penske was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. You know he’s going to give you the tools to win and you want to hold up your end of the bargain. There’s a great amount of desire that takes place for someone to be a NASCAR team owner and it takes an even larger commitment of the most precious resource: time. There shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame that doesn’t have him in it and it’s without question that he should be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”

Josef Newgarden (2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, current series point leader): “Congrats to Roger on this achievement. He is a legend in so many aspects of motorsports, so it is only natural for him to receive this kind of recognition in NASCAR as well. It has always been a team effort for Roger and that has spread across all of his motorsports platforms.  For me, it is fun to keep up with what the NASCAR teams are doing. I have always been a fan of that style of racing so it is great to see Roger get recognized for all the time and energy he has put into that part of Team Penske.”

Simon Pagenaud (2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, 7 IndyCar Series wins): “Congratulations to Roger on such a great honor. I don’t know if he fully understands everything he has done for our sport of auto racing. All of us drivers can’t thank him enough for being such an incredible man for motorsports, for the history that he’s built and the empire around racing that is Team Penske. Thank you Roger for everything you’ve done and what an honor.”

Will Power (2014 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, 30 IndyCar Series wins): “Congratulations to Roger for his election into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s a very deserving honor for someone who has meant so much for motorsports and for me personally in my career. His accomplishments in NASCAR are certainly impressive and there’s no question that he’s established a legacy there from his time as a driver to owning and managing successful racetracks to all the production on the track as a team owner. I feel so privileged to drive for Roger and for Team PenskeHe represents everything that you think about when you consider a Hall of Famer.”

Helio Castroneves (Longest-tenured Team Penske driver, 32 total wins, 53 total poles): “If there was ever a person that deserved to be inducted into any racing Hall of Fame it would be Roger Penske. He deserves it not only for what he has done in motorsports but also for the person he is. He is a leader for all of us and someone I have always admired throughout my career. Congratulations, Roger, on your induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It has been such an honor to drive for you during my career. I hope to give you many more race wins in the future.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (2015 Indianapolis 500 Champion, Acura Team Penske driver): “I think Roger’s election into the NASCAR Hall of Fame is something that people expect. Everything that Roger has done, not only in NASCAR, but in racing in general has been amazing. He has been an enormous influence in motorsports all over the world. For me personally I just want to give him a huge congratulations on this honor. I am very proud to be a part of this organization and everything Roger and the team stands for.”

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Jack Roush, 76, is NASCAR’s winningest all-time owner.

He was previously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2008) and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2010).

Before he achieved success in NASCAR, Roush was first known for his success as a both a driver and then team owner in NHRA, IHRA and AHRA drag racing events in the 1960s through the early 1980s.

He moved into the world of sports cars, including the IMSA Camel GT series in the early 1980s, a tenure that continued into the early 1990s, as well as the Trans-Am Series.

He began competition in NASCAR in 1988 when he founded a Cup team with Mark Martin as his driver. Martin was inducted last year into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Jack Roush’s and Mark Martin’s paths to induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame began together in 1988. (Photo courtesy Roush Fenway Racing)

It’s in NASCAR that Roush has achieved the most success, with a NASCAR record 325 wins across NASCAR Cup, the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series.

He’s also won six championships across those three series.

Like Penske, Roush is also highly successful not only in racing, but also in business, with much of his corporate empire encompassing performance products and services.

Follow @JerryBonkowski