Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Will He Use Daytona 500 as Springboard to Career Year?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs a big year. For fans and critics alike, the time is drawing shorter for the son of a legend to make his own mark on NASCAR in an area other than being the most popular driver on the circuit.
Despite being the most popular driver, Dale Jr. certainly has his critics. Even though he won the Daytona 500 in 2004, he hasn't won a championship. The closest he came was a third place finish in 2003.
He hasn't won a race since 2008 and that win had more to do with playing the fuel mileage strategy than having a dominant car with an aggressive driver.
Fans aren't thwarted, though. His development at Hendrick has been somewhat slow and methodical, but it's starting to pay dividends. Actually, let's come back to that in a minute.
His next best season was a fifth place finish in 2004. Dale Jr. used his Daytona 500 victory to springboard his way to six victories, 16 top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes. Those are all career-high numbers.
Those were achieved while still in his glory days at DEI before internal conflict and economic difficulties sent Junior to Hendrick and saw DEI merge with Chip Ganassi Racing. Things have never quite been the same since.
Since coming to Hendrick, Dale Jr. has struggled to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, finishing 25th and 21st in the standings in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Those dismal seasons followed a 2008 season that saw Junior finish at the very tail end of the Chasers at 12th.
His longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., was replaced with Lance McGrew, who was eventually replaced with Steve LaTarte.
Would a Daytona 500 victory propel Dale Earnhardt Jr to a career season?
The addition of LaTarte to the No. 88 team revitalized Junior. The combo worked to propel Junior back into the Chase where he came away with a seventh place finish in the points in 2011.
Now, as we wait for the rain to subside and the green flag to finally drop on the 2012 Daytona 500, fans are anxiously waiting to see what positive steps Dale Jr. can make this year.
If the past is any real indicator, a Daytona 500 victory could work wonders for the confidence of the driver and the tone of the entire race season. As mentioned before, his 2004 Daytona victory set the stage for his best season, statistically speaking.
What could it mean now that he has a crew chief that works so well with him and equipment that can't be beat? How good could Junior be if everything has finally fallen into place?
The No. 88 car has sat on the pole at least once four out of the last five years. That's the best consistent stretch in Junior's career. Now, it's just a matter of getting the finishes to match the starts.
In 2009, Junior had the fewest top-five finishes of his career (just two). Each year since, he's been steadily putting together more top fives and top 10s. That's with the specter of a very long winless streak hanging over his head.
With a win in Daytona, that streak would be broken. The pressure would be off, his confidence would be running high and Junior could get back to chasing the kind of results he last saw in 2004. Maybe even better.
We just need the rain to go away and finally hear those iconic words that could start Junior's chase for an elusive championship: BOOGITY, BOOGITY, BOOGITY...Let's go racin', boys!
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