I realize that we're still very early in the 2013 Sprint Cup season, but I've noticed something that is quite striking—and I'm wondering how many others have noticed the same thing.
When Jimmie Johnson became the points leader after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 a month ago, his fans quickly began touting Johnson as kicking off a run that will end in November with his sixth Sprint Cup championship.
When Brad Keselowski opened the season with two third-place finishes and two other fourth-place finishes in the first four races—an incredible display of consistency, not to mention taking over the points lead after last Sunday's race at Bristol—fans were doing some touting of their own.
With such a strong start, it appears pretty clear that Keselowski has picked up where he left off after winning the Sprint Cup championship last season.
But where's all the talk been concerning Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his start to this season?
Earnhardt has been just as potent as Johnson and Keselowski, finished runner-up to Johnson at Daytona, fifth at Phoenix, seventh at Las Vegas and sixth at Bristol.
Following three of the first four races, Junior was ranked second in the overall Cup standings. And the other time, he was ranked third (after Las Vegas).
Even when Kasey Kahne won at Bristol, talk-radio callers and blog writers were hypothesizing that the victory would be just the thing to start Kahne on his way to his first career Cup championship and his surprising career-best fourth-place finish in last season's standings was just a sign of even better things to come.
So, I'll ask again, given that Junior is back in second place in the standings heading into Sunday's race at Fontana, just a mere nine points behind Keselowski, why aren't more people talking about Earnhardt and the outstanding season start he's had? Is Junior becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR, where no matter what he does, he gets little if any respect for his achievements.
As much as I hate to say it, could it be that Junior fans have become so cynical or pessimistic over the course of his career that they've seen this movie too many times—and believe the outcome will once again be like the old Led Zeppelin tune: "The Song Remains The Same"?
Let's face it, Junior's legion of fans is neither as large nor as optimistic as it once was. If this was 2004 instead of 2013 and Earnhardt was still at the company his father founded (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.) and he was still sponsored by Budweiser, the fan response would be significantly different—and markedly louder, for sure.
But that's no longer the case—and hasn't been for arguably the last six seasons.
One need only look back to last season to see the most recent illustration. Earnhardt jumped out to the best start of his Cup career, spent the first 25 weeks primarily in the top three positions in the standings (and never lower than the top five) and even sat atop the points after the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
So what happens?
He was reseeded seventh when the Chase for the Sprint Cup began, was knocked out of the fourth race of the Chase at Talladega and missed the ensuing two races, recovering from a concussion.
When that happened, so went arguably Earnhardt's best bid for a Cup championship to date.
Here's another example:
In 2004, Earnhardt had an outstanding start to the season, winning the Daytona 500 en route to a career-best six wins overall.
Where did he finish in the final standings?
And then there's the flip side: Earnhardt started off the 2003 season miserably, with finishes of 36th and 33rd in the first two races, only to turn things around quickly and with a vengeance.
By the time the fifth race of the season was over, he was back up to fourth in the standings, dropped back to fifth the following week and then remained in either second or third place in the weekly standings for the remainder of the season.
He ultimately finished third in the final season before the implementation of the Chase format in 2004.
But as time has gone on, not to mention all the struggles Earnhardt has had—particularly in the wins category—maybe it really isn't that big of a surprise that his fans aren't as optimistic about his overall chances as Johnson's, Keselowski's or Kahne's.
Having won just two races in the last five seasons and a grand total of five wins in the last eight seasons (from 2005 to the present), it's understandable if fans are cautious, if not jaded, by Earnhardt's track record, no pun intended.
Perhaps, the only way the Junior Army will finally get excited and believe he can finally win his first Cup championship is if he comes into the final race of the season at Homestead with an almost insurmountable 42-point lead.
And even then, they may still not be completely convinced until he was standing atop the post-race stage, holding the championship trophy.
Because when it comes to Earnhardt, even when he's running his best, there's always that hesitation and doubt that the bottom is due to drop out at any time—and yet another potential championship bid will fall by the wayside once again.
But who knows, maybe this season will wind up differently. We can only hope.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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