Dale Earnhardt Jr. is at a make-or-break point in his career. That has been said before, but I haven’t said it until now.
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season is Earnhardt Jr.’s time to soar or fall; he has outgrown mediocrity.
He has an impressive list of statistics that include two consecutive NASCAR Nationwide championships in 1998 and 1999, a win at the Daytona 500 in 2004, and 18 career wins in the Cup series that put him in great company with Kevin Harvick, Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett and Geoffrey Bodine.
The number of his wins puts him in a category higher than Kyle Petty (8), Sterling Marlin (10), Ernie Irvan (15) and Curtis Turner (17). And I daresay he hasn’t won the last race of his career, which means he could be in the company of greats Fonty Flock, Buddy Baker and Davey Allison (all 19).
In recent years Earnhardt Jr. has taken much heat from his critics, who are irritated by the kudos bestowed on him when he hasn’t been a factor in Cup, i.e., the Most Popular Driver award for nine consecutive years as of December 1, 2011.
Conspiracy theories abound when Earnhardt Jr. is in the running for a “Lucky Dog” position and a caution is thrown, or he’s in position to win and something else happens to put him in an even better spot. But clearly that isn’t the case.
If NASCAR were trying to get Earnhardt Jr. to win, wouldn’t he have done so by now?
NASCAR, as flawed as it is, does not bend the rules for Earnhardt Jr. or anybody else. And NASCAR is certainly in a pickle when, no matter what it does, it is accused of catering to him.
That’s why it is imperative for Earnhardt Jr. to get back into the business of racing competitively. He had a brilliant outing last year with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Their 2011 season netted four top fives, 12 top tens and one pole, the best stats Earnhardt Jr. has recorded since 2008.
This could finally be the year that Earnhardt Jr. clears the cobwebs out of his head, leaves his heartache about his father behind, has his love life straightened out and has a dedicated focus to racing.
He will be in his sophomore year with Letarte, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief that posted impressive numbers, in terms of finishes, with Gordon. He just may be the key to getting Earnhardt Jr. completely out of his rut, winning races, and vying for a championship like he tried to do in 2011 in the Chase.
Earnhardt Jr. has aligned himself with media superstar Danica Patrick to run the entire NNS season for his JR Motorsports. Hiring this high-profile driver may rekindle Earnhardt Jr.’s love of all things NASCAR that, hopefully, will carry over into his Cup career.
As for his love life, his impossibly gorgeous date at the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Banquet is perhaps the key to settling Earnhardt Jr. down and allow him to focus on his Cup career. One can only hope.
Earnhardt Jr. is too talented and too damn good to let his Cup career dwindle away to obscurity at this stage in the game. I believe there are more wins left in the boy and possibly, dare I say it, a possible Cup left to win.
One thing is certain – this season should be the one that determines how Earnhardt Jr.’s career will go from here on out. All the markers are in place for him to succeed on a grand scale.