This was supposed to be the year.
All the momentum, the consistent finishes, the end of a four-year winless drought and the strongest average finish of his career have all panned out for naught for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year. Despite the resurgence after a few difficult years with Hendrick Motorsports, he has fallen from second in points before the Chase for the Sprint Cup to a frustrating 11th after Sunday's race at Talladega.
For Junior Nation, this admission may come as a bitter pill to swallow on their driver's 38th birthday, but it seems pretty clear that Earnhardt Jr.'s championship hopes are through.
The first three races of the Chase were solid but not spectacular for the No. 88 team, which posted finishes of eighth at Chicago, 13th at Loudon, and 11th at Dover. But as has been the case for much of the season, Earnhardt Jr. has shown the ability to run near the front, but not at the front, failing to lead laps in any of those races.
He held seventh in points entering Talladega, a track at which he once won four consecutive races and took the first win of its tenure in the Chase in 2004. But even though he's now led laps in 14 consecutive Talladega races, those victories all came nearly a decade ago, and Sunday offered no stop to the drought.
Running in the lead pack on the final lap, Earnhardt Jr. was caught in the 25-car pileup that started when Tony Stewart attempted to block a speeding Michael Waltrip a little too late. His car beaten around but still rolling after the crash, Earnhardt Jr. was scored a disappointing 20th, dropping four spots in points.
After the race, his comments about restrictor plate racing were nothing short of scathing:
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Dale Jr: "That's bloodthirsty. If that's what everrybody wants, that's ridiculous."
— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) October 7, 2012
Dale Jr: If I had to race like that evryweek Id find a new job. Its ridiculous. Just ridiculous. I don't even wanna go to Tona/Dega nxt yr"
— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) October 7, 2012
While Earnhardt Jr. has somewhat backed off on his comments, one thing is clear from that frustration: things aren't breaking the way they need to for the No. 88 to get back in the championship hunt.
A driver with that much frustration after a bad race knows that something is missing within his team. It may be completely on Earnhardt Jr., as he's done nothing but speak highly of crew chief Steve Letarte and the team all season.
Some also noticed that Earnhardt Jr. was holding his head quite a bit after the Talladega wreck, and it's no secret that drivers race a little more conservatively after taking a serious hit. Now 51 points out of the lead, he should be racing as aggressively as he ever has to try to make up lost ground and mount a title charge akin to Jimmie Johnson's illustrious comeback of 2006.
All told, it'll take a serious run for us to see the sport's most popular driver at the head table in Las Vegas for this year's awards banquet—and if the bad luck continues, we may not see him at a reserved table at all.
So much for this being the year.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.