Preseason Rank: 10
If 2011 was a rebuilding year for Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2012 is the one in which he needs to cash in on Victory Lane. And if just a few things fall into place, he can.
Clearly, the driver’s personal winless streak, now at 129 races, has become the elephant in the room. But don’t be fooled: Earnhardt can win. His 18 career victories aren’t something a driver can back into on blind luck. He’s won as many as six races in a single season (2004) and has three top-5 points finishes as well. So while the naysayers question the talent, the numbers show otherwise. Earnhardt doesn’t have the career stats of Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, but he’s not exactly a backmarker, either.
One difference for Earnhardt in 2011 was the move across the Hendrick Motorsports complex to the former No. 24 team and crew chief Steve Letarte in a massive team shakeup that saw Gordon and Mark Martin also land new crew chiefs and shop space. Letarte, who returns atop the pit box this year, has been very good for Junior. He doesn’t allow Earnhardt to lapse into frustration during a race, instead focusing the driver on the task at hand. It wasn’t quite “shut up and drive,” but it was clear that Letarte could keep his driver’s mind in the game.’
“These two guys really like working with each other,” said owner Rick Hendrick in November. “I’ve seen some really good runs and then some areas where we’ve kind of fumbled the ball a little bit. (But) from where I sit, and as far as those two guys and our whole company feel, we’ve got a good combination there, and it’ll get better. You just don’t go from running 15th and 18th to winning every race or winning four or five races. I think what we said we needed to do was finish in the points, up in the Chase, lead some laps, be in a position to win some races, and we were in a position to win two or three races and didn’t get it done. I’m happy with the progress and looking forward to next year. I think we’ll be better still.”
Closer information sharing between Earnhardt/Letarte and Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus was also a factor in the success. As a result, Earnhardt showed a drive and focus in 2011 that he seemed to have lost in previous years. Staying focused on the goal — winning races — will be key for Earnhardt if he’s to continue to make strides. Making the Chase is almost secondary for this team, because it doesn’t contend for the title without first contending for, and getting, race wins.
Earnhardt has a similar driving style to Johnson and has appeared much more comfortable in the current style of racecar since the crew swap. It’s no coincidence that Earnhardt’s numbers trailed off when the new car was introduced in 2007. It’s harder to adjust than the old car, and tricky to race side-by-side. That means that Earnhardt must have a strong feel for the car and how it is reacting in order to communicate any changes or issues to Letarte. While there’s no denying the improvement, there were still times in 2011 when Earnhardt seemed at a loss during races when it came to describing the car’s behavior on the racetrack.
One reason that both Earnhardt and his fans were excited about his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 was the equipment, which is regarded as the best in NASCAR. The combination of Hendrick chassis and engines is responsible for the last six championship titles, so there is no doubt that Earnhardt has plenty to work with. He’ll also have the stability of sponsors National Guard and PepsiCo, though Diet Mountain Dew will replace AMP Energy Drink as Pepsi’s main brand on the hood — a move many fans have embraced. Earnhardt himself was rewarded with a five-year contract extension through 2017 last season, so his future is not in question — he’s at HMS for the long haul.
Earnhardt knows that it’s go time in 2012, and he’s got more reason to be confident that wins are just around the corner than he’s had in a few years. It will take the right combination of things falling into place, but all signs are that they are lining up correctly for him to become a weekly contender once again.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
The ultimate fan favorite showed signs of life in 2011, nearly winning a handful of races and making the Chase. The key word, however, is “nearly.” Earnhardt Jr. has all of Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal, a cheerleading crew chief in Steve Letarte, and the advantage of working out of the same shop as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Despite all of that, Earnhardt continues to struggle and disappoint both fans and critics.
“Eighteen different drivers won races in 2011, and Earnhardt Jr. wasn't one of them. So he’s got to win in 2012 … right?” one insider asks.
“I think Junior still has it in him,” says another garage insider. “I think brands still believe in his marketability or Pepsi would have not made the change back to Diet Mountain Dew. There has been a change in Junior’s attitude, too. He is more engaged, more vocal, full of more ambition. In 2012 he needs to win, not only for himself, but for the sport. Then again he has, what, five more years to make it happen until his contact expires.”
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 12
Laps Led: 52
Laps Completed: 10,570
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 9
Races Led: 9
Average Start: 19.6
Average Finish: 14.5
After First 26 Races: 10th
Final Points Standing: 7th
Driver Rating: 83.3 (15th)
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