NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Faces a Pivotal 2012 Season

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIJanuary 30, 2012

CONCORD, NC - JANUARY 25:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, speaks with the media during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway on January 25, 2012 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

When will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win again?

Will he ever be a factor in the Chase?

Does he still have the talent worthy of driving a Hendrick Motorsports race car?

As NASCAR heads into 2012, there are—as usual—a multitude of questions swirling around the sport's most popular driver. Naysayers are out in full force, voicing doubts over Dale Jr.'s ability to live up to expectations that, at times, have been sky-high.

Several years of underwhelming performance have given Junior's critics plenty of ammunition. Comparing him to Dale Sr., they denigrate his abilities and claim he is a failure.

Of course Junior will never be a seven-time champion like his father, but his reputation could certainly use bolstering. And that process needs to start right away—the 37-year-old isn't getting any younger.

So what does Dale Jr. really need to accomplish in 2012?

Win a race, first and foremost. It's that simple.

It has been nearly three years since Junior took the checkered flag in a Cup race, and that Michigan fuel-mileage victory is growing ever more distant in the past. Despite agonizingly close calls in 2011, the winless streak continues.

Simply put, the 2012 season will be a failure for Dale Jr. without a race win, short of an improbable winless championship run.

Second, make the Chase again. Prove that the consistency we saw in the No. 88 camp in 2008 and 2011 was no fluke.

Making the Chase is essential if Junior doesn't want to be the HMS laggard. Rick Hendrick has stacked his team with top-notch drivers from top to bottom.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are perennial championship contenders, while newcomer Kasey Kahne is finally getting the opportunity to show us what he can do in first-class equipment. Junior had a better year than HMS teammate Mark Martin in 2011, but Martin will be driving part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012.

Junior will be the first to tell you that he needs to do better if he can't get past the bottom rung on the totem pole of his own team. He's certainly capable of avoiding that label and that's one of the things he needs to accomplish this season.

Third, stay in the championship conversation through the halfway point of the Chase.

Junior doesn't have to win a championship this year, but showing he can be relevant in the title hunt at the end of the year will go a long ways toward restoring his image as an elite NASCAR driver.

Look at what Kevin Harvick has done the last couple of years. In 2009, Harvick finished 19th in the standings, and many fans wrote him off as finished. But the last two years, Harvick has finished third in the championship standings. He's now considered a top driver and a favorite to win the Cup championship—despite never having done so in his career.

Dale Jr. had a solid seventh-place points finish in 2011, and if he can back that up with a similar finish this season, fans will be forced to take him seriously when thinking of championship contenders, whether or not they belong to Junior Nation.

If Dale Jr. can accomplish these three things—win a race, make the Chase, and stay relevant in the title discussion deep into the Chase—he will have a successful season.

Junior is comfortable in his own skin and being his own man. But at the same time, he is a consummate professional. He has personal goals and aspirations, and as a competitor he isn't content to see others take the glory while his proven talent goes to waste.

Beyond that, Junior wants to live up to the expectations of his legions of fans. Expect to see great things from the No. 88 team in 2012.