by Ryan Isley
Before the 2012 NASCAR season started, I fought the urge to pick Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to win the Sprint Cup Championship, as I predicted he would finish 4th in his quest to win his first title. I was being a little cautiously optimistic but I felt that he would have one of his best seasons yet in the Sprint Cup Series.
With the All-Star Race in the rear view mirror and the Coca-Cola 600 upcoming this Memorial Day weekend, there are 11 races gone and 15 left until we have the 12 drivers who will make up the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In those 11 races, Earnhardt, Jr. has made a strong case that he is actually a championship contender, heading into the weekend 3rd in points. It is the best position for Earnhardt, Jr. heading into the Coca-Cola 600 since 2008, when he was also 3rd headed into the season’s longest race.
While I know that people will see what Earnhardt, Jr. has done this season and just chalk it up to early season success that he may not be able to sustain, I see it as a sign that he has possibly turned the corner at Hendrick Motorsports and will now be a legitimate contender from here on out.
One of the reasons I believe that this success is not just a flash in the pan is that Earnhardt, Jr. and his crew chief – Steve Letarte – have now had a full season under their belts together in 2011 and seem to have learned some things for 2012. Earnhardt, Jr. and Letarte started working together in 2011 and at the Memorial Day weekend, Earnhardt, Jr. was 4th in points and ended up 10th headed into the Chase for the Sprint Cup and finished 7th on the season – his best finish in his four years at Hendrick Motorsports.
The change to Letarte was just what Earnhardt, Jr. needed as he had already gone through two crew chiefs in his three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. His first crew chief was his cousin – Tony Eury, Jr. – who was relieved of his duties after the Coca-Cola 600 in May, 2009. It was a much-needed change for the No.88 team as driver and crew chief were not always on the same page and often butted heads over the radio during the races.
Eury, Jr. was replaced by Lance McGrew, who teamed with Earnhardt, Jr. for the remainder of 2009 and the entire 2010 season. After a 25th-place finish in the NASCAR standing in 2009 and then a 21st-place finish in 2010, McGrew was replaced by Letarte.
After the sixth race of the 2011 season, Earnhardt, Jr. never fell farther than 10th-place in the Sprint Cup Series standings – a vast improvement over the past two seasons with Eury, Jr. and McGrew. Driver and crew chief were able to build on the momentum of their 7th-place finish in the final standings and use it towards 2012.
One thing that has changed this season with Letarte and Earnhardt, Jr. is that the duo has not taken any unnecessary risks on the racetrack and it has led to Earnhardt, Jr.’s most consistent run yet at Hendrick Motorsports. The worst that Earnhardt, Jr. has finished in the season’s first 11 races is 17th, which came in the last race at Darlington Raceway.
The team actually began this trend to an extent last season, as they cut down the finishes outside the top-20 to 7, a huge improvement over 2010, when the No.88 had 16 finishes outside the top-20.
In the last three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt, Jr. has had 10 finishes outside the top-20 and just 11 finishes inside the top-10 in 34 races prior to Memorial Day. Through 11 races this season, Earnhardt, Jr. has eight finishes in the top-10 and four in the top-5 for an average finish of 8.4, which would be the best in his career by more than four spots if he keeps it up.
That average finish of 8.4 is the best in Earnhardt, Jr.’s five seasons at Hendrick Motorsports at this point in the season, as his average finish last season was 11.4, in 2009 it was 16.6, in 2008 it was 18.7 and in 2008 it was 9.4.
These numbers are a good trend for the 37-year-old driver, as it shows he just may have enough to finally break through and win the championship that has eluded him throughout his career. So far, there hasn’t been anything in the 2012 NASCAR season that suggests Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t ready to take the leap.
What do you think – Does the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have what it takes to finally win the championship? Or will he falter down the stretch yet again? Leave a comment or email Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org