Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent much of his career failing to live up to expectations. At this point, fans are preconditioned to believe that NASCAR’s favorite son will never win a championship with Hendrick Motorsports. But a funny thing happened on the way to Earnhardt riding out his career as NASCAR’s Most Popular Disappointment: He ditched the plotline.
On the verge of age 40 (can you believe it?), Earnhardt has experienced a career renaissance. No, there was no Victory Lane for him in 2013 — the fourth season out of six with HMS he’s failed to cash in. But through the strength of a career high 22 top-10 finishes, Earnhardt wound up fifth in the point standings — the best he’s run since 2006. Snagging two poles for the first time in over a decade, he earned 10 top-5 results for a second straight year and seemed fully recovered from the post-concussion syndrome that thwarted his 2012 effort.
How good was Earnhardt? After a blown engine at Chicago, he sported an average finish of 5.5 in the remaining nine races, dropping outside the top 8 only once. A little perspective: In those same nine events, points runner-up Matt Kenseth averaged a finish of 8.1 and champion Jimmie Johnson averaged a 5.1. It’s clear Earnhardt could well have been a title contender if that engine had held up in the Windy City.
So while fans squabble over whether or not Earnhardt is a championship-caliber driver, the man is simply driving like he means it. To take the next step, though, Earnhardt needs to come out swinging in 2014. He needs to win races and then turn his attention to the title. If Earnhardt can nab a couple of trophies in the first 26 events and put together a run like he had last year — minus the blown engine, of course — he can go all the way. But he has to win races.
As always, he’s been afforded the best possible resources. Hendrick Motorsports provides arguably the best equipment in the sport. Earnhardt’s shopmate, Jimmie Johnson, won the 2013 title in the same cars Earnhardt is getting, so there are no foundational issues holding him back. Surprisingly, Earnhardt did suffer more mechanical woes than his teammates last year. HMS drivers suffered four engine failures in all of 2013, and the No. 88 accounted for three of them. Is that just bad luck, or is Earnhardt especially hard on his powerplants? That’s a question his team should be answering moving forward, because there are no mulligans in the Chase.
Oddly, there are a few questions surrounding sponsorship. PepsiCo returns for five races with the Diet Mountain Dew and AMP brands, while National Guard will be on board for 20 events and Kelley Blue Book for one. That leaves 10 points races unaccounted for, with Time Warner Cable’s commitment shifting to Hendrick’s No. 5 team and a new-to-the-sport sponsor being rumored. It’s a bit puzzling to see less than a full slate of backing for Earnhardt, who’s an 11-time Most Popular Driver award winner — that alone brings added value, as fans will buy souvenirs with sponsor brands on them.
The biggest weapon in Earnhardt’s arsenal is the team around him, in particular crew chief Steve Letarte. Unfortunately, that’s a weapon Earnhardt won’t have for long, as the crew chief announced in the offseason that this would be his last tour atop the pit box. Letarte has been largely responsible for a turnaround in his driver’s attitude; he’s the perfect mix of cheerleader and taskmaster. He requires Earnhardt to spend more time in the garage on race weekends, at the shop during the week, and he doesn’t allow him to lapse into complaints when things aren’t working on-track. Instead, Letarte makes Earnhardt communicate — which the driver is actually quite good at. Earnhardt and Letarte share shop space and an open-book policy on race cars with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, which is a bonus as well. The teams can actually share quite a bit, because Earnhardt and Johnson have similar driving styles and like many of the same setups in a car.
Driver and chief, of course, have assured that the pending split will not effect their season, but only time will tell. Might Earnhardt be even more motivated, set on helping Letarte leave in a blaze of glory? Just maybe.
Regardless, the pieces are in place for this team to win races. If it does so, a championship battle could follow. Earnhardt is driving better than he has in years, his focus over the last two seasons is perhaps the best it’s ever been, and he has the best in the business in his corner. But, again, Earnhardt has to win, which makes his key stat “752.” That’s the number of laps he’s led over the last three seasons; by comparison, teammate Johnson led 1,985 in 2013 alone.
You can’t win races until you run up front consistently — not seventh, not eighth or ninth but on the point. Until Earnhardt shows he can do that, he’s likely to make the Chase but not to finish it on top.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“He’s just a good all-around guy. He’s a good racer, very consistent,” a rival says. “The fan base that he has drives everything in NASCAR, and that is a good thing for the sport, regardless. I think this year he’s going to be in the same equipment that (Jimmie) Johnson won the title with in 2013. He didn’t get a race win, but he was in the top 5 or 10 every week and he’s going to keep sneaking up on it.”
“I don’t think much holds him back other than the pressure,” a crew chief says. “The media side of wanting him to live up to his last name is the only thing he has to deal with — and I don’t really think that is a problem for him.”
However, one media member isn’t sure how long Earnhardt can keep up the consistency: “The last two years were the most intensive his focus on a title has ever been. He came up way short, and I’m wondering if that will have an effect on future focus. He’s slated for a drop at some point, and assuming (Steve) Letarte is still as good of a crew chief as he has been the last three years, I think the driver will hold the team back a little bit.”
Looking at Checkers: Checkers? With two wins in the last seven seasons (both at Michigan) it’s hard to assume he’ll get his.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Junior and Stevie Letarte will point ’em to death, particularly on the plate tracks, where they had a pair of runner-up finishes in 2013.
Good Sleeper Pick: The Michigan success seems sleeper-ish to us — actually downright weird — but we’ve covered that. So give him a start at Martinsville, where he owns nine top 10s in the 14 CoT/Gen-6 era events.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The one and only Cup track where he lacks a top 10 in the CoT/Gen-6 era is that dastardly road course in upstate New York.
Insider Tip: You know the drill by now: Earnhardt has four wins since the start of the ’05 season — that’s nine full years. If you’re serious about winning the fantasy league, bet with your head, not your heart.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro