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Previews, predictions and stats for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has something to prove in 2013 after a pair of concussions clouded his long-term prospects. Earnhardt, after years of struggling with Hendrick Motorsports, was the most consistent driver in Sprint Cup in the early part of the 2012 season, taking the points lead midsummer. However, a poor start to the Chase made his decision to sit out two races due to concussions an easy one. When the other drivers pushed down on the title accelerator, a low-key Earnhardt turned all but invisible — again.
Earnhardt returned for the final four races of 2012, but the new year begins without momentum on his side. No laps were led in his return; he posted a ho-hum average start of 19.5 as the No. 88 struggled to get up front (best finish: seventh, Texas). Does that mean he’s starting from square one in 2013?
That would be overstating things a bit. The best weapon in Earnhardt’s arsenal is his equipment. Hendrick Motorsports has the most expansive operation on the Cup circuit, cutting-edge technology and the best in creative engineering. Not only is it fast (HMS enjoyed 10 wins among four drivers last year), but it’s also durable; Earnhardt did not have a single mechanical failure in 2012. Team owner Rick Hendrick has 209 Cup wins in 28 years because he expects excellence, a hallmark that bodes well for a 2013 transition to the new car. Keep in mind that during the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007, the title chase was a two-man race featuring HMS teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Another major plus for Earnhardt is his crew chief, Steve Letarte. While Letarte might not be the most mechanically gifted head wrench, his motivational skills have become an integral part of Earnhardt’s drastic improvement. Letarte forced Earnhardt to the plate, expecting the driver to be with his team between practices on race weekend, enforcing commitment. When Earnhardt gets angry on the radio, Letarte redirects that energy toward communicating effectively about his car, changing the focus on driving through the problems until they can be fixed. Letarte’s strong connection to a headstrong personality, which had been missing in Earnhardt’s HMS employment, has helped the driver and team steadily improve since the start of the 2011 season.
In addition, the organization’s open-book policy benefits Earnhardt, who needs feedback more than any other driver on the team’s four-man roster. He has worked closely with shopmate Johnson since his team was moved into the building, and Letarte and Chad Knaus are accustomed to working together from their days sharing space in the old No. 24/48 shop.
Earnhardt still has open sponsorship space on his car, which is slightly ironic considering his perennial status as the sport’s most popular driver. The National Guard will be back for 20 races, but PepsiCo, who had filled out the schedule, will scale back to just five. That’s not as big a concern as it would be for some other teams, because Earnhardt’s popularity should help sell the remaining events. And it’s unlikely that Hendrick would allow the team’s performance to suffer for lack of sponsorship.
A bigger question mark for Earnhardt is the driver himself. Known for ups and downs throughout a long career, he’s had years when he’s been a serious title contender, followed by ones in which he’s folded like a lawn chair. The 2011 and ’12 seasons, for example, marked the first time that Earnhardt earned back-to-back Chase appearances as a driver. Some think the head injuries have left Earnhardt more conservative; one insider goes so far as to say he has a long-term plan in place to exit the sport after one more hard hit.
The new car is not as much of a concern, though. Earnhardt never fully developed a feel for the Car of Tomorrow, preferring the pre-CoT model when he enjoyed the large majority of his Cup success. In testing the Gen-6 car, Junior has likened its feel to that of the older machines.
The bottom line is that Earnhardt is a little hard to place, and his attitude and adjustability will be key aspects of how well he’ll fare in 2013. It’s hard to see him missing the Chase, but what happens from there is a little less clear.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“Pressure” is the running theme when the topic of conversation turns to the sport’s most popular driver.
“He is a talented guy,” a rival crew chief says. “We saw him be as competitive last year as he has been in a very long time. But he’s under a microscope because of who he is. I don’t think that it’s fair of us as competitors, and I don’t think that it’s fair of fans to put him under a microscope that is more focused than it is on other drivers.”
Another competitor believes if everything is “right” for Earnhardt, he can be a successful Cup driver:
“I think he is who he is and is very competitive. I think he can win races when he’s with the right group, and I think the group he is with is the right group. He’ll be in position to do good things and win championships (with Hendrick Motorsports). If people will leave him alone and let him be who he is, it will be good for the sport. He’s fun to race around.”
“You’re not going to find a more honest interview,” a media member says. “Junior is different from other drivers in that he doesn’t have to walk any type of company line. Not that he says things to stir controversy, because he doesn’t. I just wish people would realize that his continued popularity is due as much to his candor as it is to his last name.”
Looking at Checkers: The obvious answer would be Michigan. But don’t kid yourself: Junior still upholds the family tradition like a champ on the plate tracks.
Pretty Solid Pick: Earnhardt’s best average finishing position lies at Bristol, where he’s running at an 11.8 clip.
Good Sleeper Pick: Martinsville. No wins, but he has 10 top 5s in 26 career Cup starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has failed to notch a top 10 at only one track. Not surprisingly, that track is the road course in Sonoma, where he seems cursed, yet blessed.
Insider Tip: The 2012 consistency was a good sign, but let’s be honest: He’s won only two races in the last six years. This isn’t the guy to anchor your fantasy squad.
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