It's an exciting thought: NASCAR's most popular driver for the past nine years, the son of one of its greatest all-time drivers, has a serious chance at winning his first championship at the Sprint Cup level.
But does Dale Earnhardt Jr.—fan favorite, Nationwide Series team owner and likely the busiest man in NASCAR—really have what it takes to win this year's Chase for the Cup?
It's true that 2012 has been Earnhardt Jr.'s best season in a very long time. For the past two weeks, he's led the points—something he hasn't done since the first race of the inaugural Chase in 2004. And behind a confident Hendrick Motorsports team led by crew chief Steve Letarte, he broke into Victory Lane at Michigan in June, scoring his first win in exactly four years.
Earnhardt Jr. now has nine top-fives and 15 top-10s through 22 races. Only Jimmie Johnson has more in either category. Meanwhile, those marks represent Earnhardt Jr.'s best season with Hendrick Motorsports since he joined the team in 2008, when he scored 10 top-fives and 16 top-10s through 36 races.
But those who doubt Earnhardt Jr. certainly have their reasons. For one, five-time champion and teammate Johnson is getting hot at the right time, taking the points lead for the first time this season at Watkins Glen. Despite last year's failure, Johnson is still the best driver in Chase history, and he and crew chief Chad Knaus don't give up the lead easily once they get it.
Consistency alone also isn't enough to win a championship, as Carl Edwards demonstrated last season. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for points scored in the Chase, but by virtue of failing to score any wins after Las Vegas that year, he was surpassed by Stewart's five wins within the Chase.
Earnhardt Jr. has shown the ability to be consistent, but the killer instinct to score victories just doesn't seem to be there. A road course race may not show up in the Chase, but he threw away a solid finish and the points lead by spinning at Watkins Glen with less than 10 laps to go.
Not only did Earnhardt Jr. drop three spots in points by virtue of the 28th-place finish, but the defeated tone in his post-race interviews suggested that things may begin to unravel in the No. 88 camp.
With 14 races left in the season, we're not even two-thirds of the way through this year's Sprint Cup schedule. But this is the time to for top drivers to get hot and establish themselves as legitimate title contenders. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown the ability to run up front all season, but unless that killer instinct to get up front shows up quickly, simply running up front may not be good enough.