It's been a long, oftentimes tough road for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his Sprint Cup career.
Sure, there's been success at times, particularly during his lengthy stint with the team that his late father founded. There also was the tragedy of losing his father and the guidance that came with it when the elder Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Then, there's been the overall lack of success for Junior over much of the last six seasons, to the point where the once diehard and loyal Junior Nation has unquestionably had its share of defectors, reluctant to believe that their driver—make that their former driver—will ever realize many long-held dreams of being a Sprint Cup champion one day.
Earnhardt finished a disappointing last in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Granted, he missed two Chase races after suffering a concussion in a wreck at Talladega. There was no way he could rebound back up in the points standings from something like that in The Chase's 10-race format.
But that disappointment has made some people forget what got Junior into this past season's Chase to begin with: a successful 26-race regular season that not only included him consistently ranked within the top five, but also finally snapping a 143-race winless streak. Even though he didn't win another race after his June breakthrough at Michigan, there's no question that prior to The Chase, Junior was one of the best drivers in Cup racing.
That's one of the main reasons why he should be considered a legitimate contender to finally win that elusive first Cup championship in 2013.
On paper, finishing 12th in the 12-man Chase makes it look like it was a disappointing season for Earnhardt. In many ways, it was.
But, The Chase notwithstanding, Earnhardt proved in 2012 that not only could he win again, that he was one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit. If he can have an equally strong or even stronger regular season in 2013 before heading into The Chase, he could be in the midst of some serious championship consideration.
There are a lot of ifs with that kind of statement, for sure:
If Junior doesn't have the same kind of bad luck and misfortune that he had several times during 2012, particularly during The Chase.
If Junior can up his winning ante to, say, three or four wins in 2013.
If Junior can continue his further development and enhance the great chemistry he has with crew chief Steve Letarte.
Put all those together and there's an argument that can be made that 2013 could be Earnhardt's best season ever.
One thing that indirectly may help is having Danica Patrick in Sprint Cup in 2013. Patrick will likely take away some of the scrutiny and focus that normally goes to Earnhardt. In fact, if she has a better season than many expect, she could potentially steal Earnhardt's 10-year running title as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver.
More than anything in 2013, Earnhardt needs to maintain the same kind of focus and performance he had in the first 26 races of 2012. He needs to forget about the disappointment that came in the Chase. He needs to forget about expectations—or, like we're doing in this column, championship talk—and focus solely on winning and consistency. Everything else will take care of itself, including if he truly is destined to win a Cup championship in 2013 or if ever.
How many people envisioned Brad Keselowski coming out of virtually nowhere to win the Sprint Cup championship this past season? Probably a lot fewer than those that had the same expectations for Junior, as they likely have had for the last 10 or 11 seasons.
For that matter, how many people saw Jimmie Johnson winning one championship, let alone a record five straight?
With every new season comes new optimism, expectations and hopes. It's how a driver and his team reacts and performs that oftentimes is the difference between being a legitimate contender and someone who dreams about it. In the past, I would have put Earnhardt in the latter category, a driver who dreamed of greatness but for one reason or other couldn't pull it off.
But after what he achieved in the first 26 races of 2012, I'm ready to consider Junior a championship contender in 2013. It's almost like building a house: his first few years with Hendrick Motorsports laid the foundation. Then last season, Earnhardt built the walls. Now in 2013, it's time for him to put the roof on and top off the project with his first championship.
Remember, Junior is now 38 years old. Time is not on his side when it comes to remaining a viable championship contender. If he's going to make the most serious, concerted effort of his career towards a title, the upcoming season will have to be it.
If he doesn't make it in '13, he may never make it. That's why time is of the essence and it's time for Junior to grab for it while time is still on his side.
Somehow, I think he'll do just that, and a year from now we'll be going into the 2014 season saying "Defending Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Jr."
You have to admit, that sounds pretty good, doesn't it, Junior fans?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski