Six races remain in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup and the time is dwindling on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s dream season. Earnhardt finished 20th on Sunday at Talladega, his worst finish in nearly two months, and the pressure is now on the man who will turn 38 years old Wednesday to make a late charge and capture his first Sprint Cup Series title.
Earnhardt Jr. will return to his native area of Charlotte this weekend looking to rekindle some of his earlier season magic by claiming a win on Sunday night at the Bank of America 500 under the lights of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. won the the Sprint Showdown on May 19th over All-Star weekend at that very same track and he's hoping a l'il home cookin' will be just what the doctor ordered to revive his fleeting championship hopes.
Hard to believe but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer the young kid who first made his NASCAR debut, as a 21year-old, on the then-Busch Series (now Nationwide). Earnhardt Jr. has racked up 23 wins on the Nationwide series and 19 victories on the premier NASCAR circuit, the Sprint Cup.
Thanks to a torrid start this season, many NASCAR fans' hopes were elevated and some felt that this was finally the time that "Junior," as he's known to his legion of fans, would wear the crown and take his place atop the stock-car racing world.
The amazing thing is that Junior hasn't won a Sprint Cup points race since 2008. Earnhardt Jr. has not reached victory lane in 143 races, though many were noticing a noticeable improvement in his driving and felt it was simply a matter of time before he reached victory lane.
Finally, Junior captured the checkered flag at Michigan International Speedway on June 17th and NASCAR's most beloved man won his first points race in four years. Earnhardt Jr. dominated the Quicken Loans 400 in Brooklyn, Michigan to jump, at the time, all the way up to second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
It was a long-time coming for the most popular man in stock-car racing.
Earnhardt Jr. said following that race, ''I feel like we are getting stronger. This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me.''
The 2004 Daytona 500 winner has reached such high acclaim, in no small part, due to the legendary success and status of his father, Dale Earnhardt, who is known as perhaps the biggest icon in NASCAR history.
Earnhardt Jr.'s father died in tragic fashion on the track which he so loved, Daytona International Speedway, when his car crashed and he was killed from the subsequent impact during the 2001 Daytona 500.
"The Intimidator" won seven NASCAR championships, tied for most all-time with fellow racing legend Richard Petty, and helped to vault the sport into national popularity. In fact, NASCAR racing is currently the second highest rated sport among professional sport franchises in the United States, behind only the NFL.
Earnhardt Jr. was already a rising star in the Busch Series, taking the championship in 1998 and 1999, and started to rival his father in immense popularity among fans. After his father's shocking and untimely death, Earnhardt Jr. aimed to carry on his father's legacy.
He won an emotional and dramatic race at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona less than five months after his father was killed. He then followed that with a huge victory at Talladega later in the season and in the process proved in his own right that he was a force to be reckoned with on the Sprint Cup circuit.
The 2004 Daytona 500 victory was the hallmark win of Earnhardt Jr.'s career and continued his ascent to the top of the sport. Though following a stellar 2004, in which he won six races and finished fifth in the points standings, his performance started to regress.
Amazingly, before Junior's victory in Michigan in June, he had won only three Sprint Cup races since the start of the 2005 season. Even still, Earnhardt Jr.'s fame continued to grow.
Earnhardt Jr. won NASCAR's most popular driver in 2003 and has won the award every year since. To call Earnhardt a fan-favorite would be understating matters. He's a god in the eyes of many racing fans.
What makes this honor all the more stunning is the incredible on-track success of Earnhardt Jr.'s fellow Hendrick Motorsports racing teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who won an unbelievable five straight Sprint Cup championships from 2007-2011.
Clearly, fan adulation does not always come with championships. Maybe everybody doesn't love a winner.
Earnhardt Jr. is also the biggest earner in the sport, thanks largely to an estimated $22 million in endorsements in 2011 alone. That staggering sum of money comes into his bank account from the likes of Nationwide car insurance, Wrangler, American Racing Equipment and AMP Energy, to name a few.
Earnhardt's affable personality and smile sure help. As does his surname, which will forever remind people of his father, who is immortalized in the sport and deified by some.
For so long, the cries have been that Earnhardt Jr.'s performance on the racetrack has not justified the mammoth profits that he brings in through racing and endorsements, nor his incredible popularity in the sport.
He's hoping to mount a late rally this year to justify those accolades and achievements, as he looks to propel himself back to the pinnacle of the sport. NASCAR can only benefit from its most popular man spending more time in victory lane.
Junior has some work to do, but in a year where's he's made some great strides, it would be foolish to count him out. A win this weekend could revitalize his season. His fellow competitors may just want to pay extra attention down the stretch to who's coming up behind them in their rearview mirror.