by Ryan Isley
It isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish. Unfortunately for Dale Earnhardt Jr, that’s a lesson that is being learned the hard way this season.
Earnhardt Jr started the 2014 season on the highest of highs, winning his second career Daytona 500 in February. To show that wasn’t a fluke, he followed it up with back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas. After finishing third at Martinsville in the sixth race of the season, Earnhardt Jr found himself on the top of the NACAR Sprint Cup Series standings.
It seemed as if he was finally poised to take that next step and win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, something his father did seven times. The constant hype was taking a backseat to actual results and Junior Nation was waving its flag with vigor, touting 2014 as the year their favorite son finally snagged the top prize.
The driver of the No.88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet also picked up a sweep at Pocono, where he won both races in 2014, giving him three wins total on the season. That tied for the second-most wins in a season in Earnhardt Jr’s career, as he won three races in 2001 as well. His most career wins came in 2004, when he won six times. In the “regular season” portion of the NASCAR schedule – the first 26 races – Earnhardt Jr picked up 11 top-5s, the most he had in a season since 16 in that 2004 season. He also had 16 top-10s in those 26 races.
This was a season that was lining up to be something great for Earnhardt Jr. The one in which he could point to all of the naysayers and show them he could compete for the sport’s grand championship. It all seemed to be coming together – a fairy tale of sorts with crew chief Steve Letarte announcing he would step down at season’s end to take a job with NBC.
Earnhardt Jr looked to be driving with more confidence than maybe ever before, trying to improve on his career-best third place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings from 2003 and his career-best tying Chase effort of fifth place from just a season ago. He and Letarte had grown more comfortable with each other and the team got off to a red hot start and used his three wins to start the Chase in a tie for second place behind Brad Keselowski.
But unfortunately, the regular season only counts for so much since the inception of the Chase in 2004.
The real test for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers this season more than any in the past is their ability to put together strong finishes in stretches in the Chase – or just win a race. For Earnhardt Jr, that didn’t come as easily as it did in the first 26 races of the season.
In the six races in the Chase, Earnhardt Jr had just one top-10, with a best finish of 9th at New Hampshire in the second race. Earnhardt Jr used that plus an 11th-place finish at Chicago to move out of the first round of the Chase. But the final race of that round at Dover may have been a sign of what was to come. Earnhardt Jr finished out the Challenger Round with a 17th-place finish to advance to the Contender Round.
That round was one that Earnhardt Jr just couldn’t escape, however.
It all started – and pretty much ended – with the first race of the round at Kansas. The disaster at Kansas put Earnhardt Jr in a hole he just could not escape, all but ending his 2014 season. Earnhardt Jr limped to a 39th-place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400, putting him in a position to need a win in one of the next two races to advance. Either that, or get a ton of help.
The next two races didn’t go well for Earnhardt Jr either, finishing 20th at Charlotte and 31st in the race at Talladega this past weekend that ultimately eliminated him. After having just five finishes of 17th or worse in the season’s first 28 races, Earnhardt Jr had four in a row in the last four races.
And just like that, the storybook beginning to the season is forgotten, as it is no longer necessary in telling the story of 2014 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sure, the season had some positive moments for Earnhardt Jr and the No. 88 team but when all is said and done, he will be going home empty handed once again. He held three trophies (so far) but will not hold the one that matters after the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For the 40-year-old Earnhardt, Jr, the story may have changed but the end result turned out to be the same – Earnhardt Jr will once again finish a season without a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. It was another opportunity lost. And you just never know how many times those opportunities are going to come around.
For Earnhardt Jr, he now has to hope 2015 holds a better fate.