Hot 20 – As Richmond arrives, Earnhardt announces his departure

One day they are going to make that movie. It will feature a young Dale Earnhardt Jr. growing up in the shadow of his legendary father. We will see his daddy’s pride as his namesake begins his racing career. That first Tier II win at Texas in 1998. The two Tier II titles that came that year, and the next.

Two years later, Senior saw Junior take his first Cup victory on that same Texas track. Junior won, ole Dale was seventh in the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet. Four races later, at Richmond, Junior won his second. Dad was 10th. The Legend and his Legacy.

Then came the improbable story line. Dale Earnhardt would leave us on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001. It was a race won by Michael Waltrip, a winless veteran driver who the Terminator put in the seat of a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car. His son finished second. On a day that should have been devoted to celebration, the Man in Black was gone.

No one would dare write a script like this one. A week later, another of his drivers, Steve Park, would win at Rockingham. His friend and rival, Jeff Gordon, claimed Las Vegas. His race team, now led by a 25-year old Kevin Harvick, returned to Victory Lane for Richard Childress in the next race at Atlanta. What could top this emotional ride? When they returned to Daytona in July, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning, with Waltrip in second, and we rejoiced as they celebrated atop their cars in the infield as the crowd roared in approval.

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Junior would win at Dover later in the year, and in October he was victorious at Talladega, the scene of his father’s final victory just the year before. Senior won 10 times at that track, and the 2001 win for his son was the start of four consecutive conquests on the same superspeedway. The movie will take us to the twin Talladega triumphs of 2002, to Talladega and Phoenix the next season, and then to 2004. The Daytona 500, Atlanta, Richmond, Bristol, Talladega, and Phoenix.

Then came the lean years. The break from his late father’s team. The man who lost a legendary father joined a man who lost a cherished son. The main story went behind the scenes, as the successes on the track became few and far in between. Just four wins over nine seasons. However, there was one more act in the play, a resurgence before the final curtain would drop.

Four more wins in 2014, including his second Daytona 500. Three in 2015, including his sixth at Talladega, one more summertime victory to give him four at Daytona, and his third career decision at Phoenix. Before the credits roll, the movie will see the on-track heartbreak of 2016, the loss of half a season. Yet, while he wondered about his future out on the track, there was true joy as the year ended with his new bride Amy by his side. A new chapter was about to begin as the movie comes to a close.

Peter Jackson, if you are not too busy, this is a movie I would really love to see.

Here are our Hot 20 heading to Richmond this Sunday.

1. BRAD KESELOWSKI – 2 WINS – 277 PTS
Leads the pack, but his day at Bristol was one for the dumper. On to Richmond!

2. JIMMIE JOHNSON – 2 WINS – 244 PTS
With his 6.72 races per win ratio, his next victory should come by the time they leave Michigan.

3. KYLE LARSON – 1 WIN – 360 PTS
Great acceleration out of the pits on Monday. Just too great, as it turned out.

4. MARTIN TRUEX JR. – 1 WIN – 323 PTS
Had a rare good day at Bristol and now hopes for a rare good day at Richmond.

5. RYAN NEWMAN – 1 WIN – 186 PTS
One win means the difference between fifth and 14th. I hope Junior is listening.

6. KURT BUSCH – 1 WIN – 163 PTS
Went three laps down and still had a better day than his brother.

7. CHASE ELLIOTT – 333 PTS
He was not a factor last week, so explain to me that Top Ten result.

8. JOEY LOGANO – 291 PTS
Not a fan of the driver, but Cameron Curtis reminds us we all should be a fan of the man.

9. JAMIE MCMURRAY – 244 PTS
Granted, we are just eight races in, but 2017 has been a very sweet year for the 40-year old.

10. KEVIN HARVICK – 239 PTS
Before you panic, he has 24 wins over the past seven seasons, and a winless streak of just 13.

11. CLINT BOWYER – 239 PTS
From second tier a year ago to second place this past week to a place he’s won at twice before.

12. RYAN BLANEY – 228 PTS
No power steering, no quick fix, no points to speak of, but just check out those biceps.

13. KYLE BUSCH – 214 PTS
When the wheels on the car don’t keep round and round, one’s day can go to crap in a hurry.

14. TREVOR BAYNE – 192 PTS
Best performer for Jack Roush since Carl Edwards left to join Joe Gibbs.

15. ERIK JONES – 192 PTS
The 20-year-old has one Top Ten as he enters his 12th career Cup race.

16. DENNY HAMLIN – 184 PTS
Tenth on Monday and now heads to a track where he has won three, including the one last fall.

17. RICKY STENHOUSE, JR. – 168 PTS
Three Top Tens over the past five contests but just one in eight tries at Richmond.

18. KASEY KAHNE – 164 PTS
Does Junior’s announcement ease the pressure on him or is the clock still ticking?

19. ARIC ALMIROLA – 161 PTS
You could say that Bristol (tire) rubbed him the wrong way.

20. MATT KENSETH – 159 PTS
It does not matter where you run all day, as long as you are in the picture at the end.

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