Dale Earnhardt Jr: Why the Sprint Cup Title Could Be "at His Fingertips"

Ben Montedonico@@NASCARBRBenContributor IIISeptember 25, 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr(right) is competitive again, and Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team is part of the reason why
Dale Earnhardt Jr(right) is competitive again, and Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team is part of the reason whySean Gardner/Getty Images

Junior Nation remembers the hard days all too well.

You know, that period of time from 2007 to 2010 when their driver won just one race and made just one appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, when he failed to finish inside the top 10 in points in 2008.

They can also recall the glory days of 2003 and 2004, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won eight races and made two runs at the title, only to fall short in heartbreaking fashion in back-to-back years.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has made Junior's fans feel a whole lot younger, taking them back eight years and helping them forget about that abysmal four-year period, during which driver No. 88 began a 143-race winless streak.

Yes, 2012 has in many ways mirrored 2004, and not just because of the Olympics or the upcoming presidential election.

Once again, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is competitive. He exudes confidence at the track week-in and week-out. Heck, he even managed to win a race earlier this year; something he hadn't done since the last time we changed presidents.

But in 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has something different. Something he didn't have in 2004; something that maybe, just maybe, could help NASCAR's most popular driver win his first ever Sprint Cup title.

Jimmie Johnson.

In case you're new to the sport, Mr. Johnson has won five Sprint Cup championships; four of which came during that abysmal four-year run that Earnhardt had.

He's also Junior's teammate, and the two have worked out of the same shop since 2011.

"The blueprint to success is right next to me in that shop," Earnhardt said during Tuesday's NASCAR teleconference. "We definitely feel good about that and like that scenario. It's been fun being a part of that program."

Earnhardt had a share in that success over the last two seasons. In 2011, the first year Johnson and Earnhardt worked side-by-side, the latter made the Chase for the first time in three years, finishing seventh in the standings.

This year, he broke that 143-race winless streak and made the Chase once again, accomplishing that feat in back-to-back years for the first time in his career.

"I've been able to enjoy more success because of [working with Johnson] over the last couple years," Earnhardt continued. "It's definitely improved my performance as a driver having been paired into this program and into that shop with Chad [Knaus], Jimmie and Steve [Letarte]."

Since working with Johnson and the No. 48 team, all of Earnhardt's stats are up.

His average finish in the last two seasons has been around 12.3, down from his 18.7 average in his first three years with the organization.

In the two years before he started working with Johnson, Earnhardt had just five top-fives and 13 top-10s. Since then, those numbers have jumped to 14 top-fives and 29 top-10s, and the 2012 season isn't even done yet.

Make no mistake, the fact that Earnhardt's performance is up so much since working with Johnson and the No. 48 team is not a knock on Junior in the sense that he can only perform well if provided the best-of-the-best.

Rather, this is simply an indication that, when given the proper equipment and the right people to work with, Earnhardt's ceiling is much higher than we may have thought two or three years ago.

"I can't ask for the book to be any more open and in view as it is for me as far as sharing information goes," he goes on. "If I have a question about what I'm doing with my car, what Chad might be doing with his, I can talk and have that conversation with Chad."

"I can have that same conversation with Jimmie and his car, the changes they made, how he feels about those," Junior continues. "All that is right there at your fingertips."

If he can continue to make gains and work with arguably the best team in the business, information may not be the only thing at Junior's fingertips.

The Sprint Cup title may be, too.


All quotes were obtained first-hand via NASCAR Teleconference. For the full Teleconference transcript, click here.