Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a terrific ad pitchman and entrepreneur, a more-than-occasional gracious and generous host to some of NASCAR's up-and-coming stars.
He's also pretty good at his job and one of the top 12 or 15 stock-car drivers in the world.
But he's no Sprint Cup champion. And for those who think this might be the year he finally changes that, think again. It's not likely to happen.
Earnhardt moved up one spot to fifth in the Sprint Cup standings despite finishing just 16th in last Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway and thrilled his legions of supporters earlier this year when he briefly occupied the top spot in the points. Named NASCAR's Most Popular Driver by fans for 10 years running, Earnhardt is in the sport's best equipment at Hendrick Motorsports and has great chemistry with his latest crew chief, Steve Letarte.
He also has a pair of teammates who own multiple championships and the knowledge of how to earn them in five-time champ Jimmie Johnson and four-timer Jeff Gordon. They've shared their know-how with Earnhardt for years now.
So why can't Earnhardt join the Cup championship club?
Well, it's a complex answer. But the simplest way to put it is he might just be too darn nice. When it comes to the end of a race, even one that might determine a season's champion, Earnhardt isn't willing to do what other drivers would do—take someone out and put himself in Victory Lane in his place.
He'll also turn 39 years old this October. As football coach John Fox likes to say about NFL teams, at a certain point in a season "you are what you are." After a certain point in their careers, Sprint Cup drivers are what they are as well.
Last year, Earnhardt and Letarte put together a solid season. Despite missing two late races because of a concussion suffered during a testing session at the same Kansas track where he raced last Sunday, Earnhardt posted 10 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes to go along with his first win in four years. He hadn't had as many top-five finishes since 2008, his first year at Hendrick, and hadn't had as many top-10 finishes since 2004 when he still drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
But here are the rest of the facts: Earnhardt's best seasons appear to be long behind him now. In 2003 while driving for DEI, he won two races and finished a career-high third in the point standings. That was a full decade ago.
The next season, in 2004, Earnhardt probably peaked as a Cup driver when he won a career-high six races but had to settle for fifth in the final point standings in the inaugural year of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He won one race in each of the next two seasons and finished fifth in points again in 2006.
In the six-plus seasons since then, Earnhardt has won precisely two races—both at the same Michigan track—in a total of 222 Cup starts. When he won at Michigan in June of 2008, he snapped a 76-race winless streak. When he won there again last June, it terminated a 143-race winless streak that gave him the sixth-longest gap between victories in NASCAR history.
In the Chase era, no driver has won a championship with fewer than three wins in a season.
When Earnhardt first signed with Hendrick Motorsports, Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip predicted Earnhardt would win that year's Daytona 500 and said that "six wins" in his first season with the storied organization "sounded about right." Team owner Rick Hendrick agreed, heaping enormous and, as it turns out, unfounded expectations upon the popular driver.
No one sounded the alarm then. Everything seemed possible. There were whispers that Junior might even be on his way to multiple championships of his own.
Dale Jr. never asked to be compared to his legendary father, who passed away in a tragic last-lap accident during the 2001 Daytona 500. And he shouldn't be, because his driving style is different from his father's hard-driving, wreck-someone-first-if-necessary-and-ask-questions-later method of operation.
It seems Junior is just too polite on the race track. He drives more like perennial Cup runner-up Mark Martin than his own father and has the same number of Cup championships to show for it.
There was the time at Martinsville in 2011 when he finished second to Kevin Harvick, refusing to lay a bumper on Harvick as Harvick surged to the lead in the closing laps. It was the same track where Johnson and Gordon once had repeatedly beaten and banged on each other while fighting furiously for a win in the closing laps. The hard-charging Johnson won that battle and added to what has become a pile of Martinsville victories by relegating Earnhardt to yet another second-place finish in the fall of 2008.
Then there was the time at the 2009 Daytona 500 when Earnhardt surprised fellow competitors by uncharacteristically driving more aggressively on the track, after which he admitted himself: "I've always been too nice." Three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart once said he would "run over my own mother" to win a title; Earnhardt wouldn't even run over his stepmother, even though they often haven't gotten along.
Being too nice is not a terrible legacy to have—it's just unlikely to garner him that coveted Cup championship as he approaches middle age. He's still had a Hall of Fame career that includes a total of 19 Cup wins, two lower-series championships when he was much younger and his own race team in the Nationwide Series, through which he's proved he has the chops to be a capable car owner. He also has his commercial endorsements, his popular bar in uptown Charlotte, N.C. and quite the spread, complete with his own cool replica of an old Western town on the outskirts of the city.
That's where Earnhardt once put up a young, unknown upstart named Brad Keselowski. Who would have believed then that Keselowski, now the defending series champion, would have a better chance of earning multiple Cup titles than Junior would have of capturing even one?
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