Why Doesn't Dale Earnhardt Jr. Win More NASCAR Sprint Cup Races?
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans are perhaps the most optimistic in sports.
Their driver has won 19 races in his Cup career.
During his first six full-time seasons, from 2000 to 2005, plus the first 10 races of 2006, he earned 16 victories.
But since the 11th race of 2006, he's managed just three wins in 252 starts—or one win in every 84 races.
Certainly not the kind of effort that wins championships.
Last season, Earnhardt won his first race since 2008—ironically enough, both came at Michigan International Speedway—which the Sprint Cup series visits once again in two weeks.
Does that mean Junior is due for another win there? Why not this Sunday at Dover, or next Sunday at Pocono or at Daytona or Indianapolis next month?
Indeed, why doesn't Junior win more races? Or why hasn't he at least won more since 2006, one year before he left the company his father founded—Dale Earnhardt Inc.—and like LeBron James, who went from Cleveland to Miami, taken his talent from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports?
That's one of the biggest ongoing questions in NASCAR—and one that may never be answered.
When Earnhardt moved to HMS, he had the promise of the best of everything: the best equipment, the best personnel and arguably the best funding of any organization in the sport.
It seemed like it would be a slam dunk that Junior would not only start winning a ton of races, but that championships—with an "s," as in multiple Cup titles—would come in bunches as well.
As it turned out, though, it was Jimmie Johnson, not Junior, who won multiple championships: five in a row from 2006 through 2010.
And since his move to HMS in 2008, Junior has won just two races in 190 starts, or one win for every 95 races.
He's had three crew chiefs in five-plus years: He brought cousin Tony Eury Jr. with him to HMS, a pairing that lasted less than one-and-a-half years.
Then came Lance McGrew, who lasted just over one-and-a-half seasons.
And since the start of 2011, Earnhardt has been under the tutelage of one of the best crew chiefs in the game, Steve Letarte.
Still, though, Junior, the multi-millionaire and most popular driver in the sport for the last 10 years running, hasn't been able to buy a win even if he wanted to.
What's up with that?
Earnhardt, now 38 (can you believe he's that old already?), has never lacked for attention. How could he, with a name like that and being the prodigy of his late father, one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history?
But it's what Junior has lacked far too much over the last seven seasons—most notably consistency and momentum—that finds him where he is today:
Still searching for his first Sprint Cup championship.
And with each season that's gone by, the same guy who won two Busch Series championships in the late 1990s grows further and further away from what he's sought ever since he slid behind the wheel of a race car.
At this juncture, Earnhardt may never win that elusive Cup title. Obviously, his chances get smaller and smaller as each season passes.
But his lack of a crowning achievement in the Cup ranks isn't something you can pin solely on Junior. You can't say he ran out of talent, you can't say he doesn't want to win and you most definitely can't say he doesn't want that championship worse than anything in the world.
But what you can say is he's perhaps one of the most snake-bitten drivers in the garage when it comes to bad luck and misfortune. And it's there that the real likely reason why he's failed to win a championship resides.
Look at 2004: He spent the first half of the season leading the standings or in second place. Then he had that horrific crash and resulting fire, when he blacked out briefly upon impact while practicing for an American LeMans Series race in Sonoma, Calif., suffering severe burns that would plague him for the rest of that year.
End result: While he did go on to win three races after his crash-and-burn episode (part of a career-high six wins in a season), Earnhardt ultimately finished fifth in the final standings.
Or how about 2008: After not having a win for more than two years, he finally came through at Michigan. Expectations were high afterward that he had put the worst slump of his career behind him and that lots of wins would soon be forthcoming.
End result: He would go on to have over 140 more starts before he finally reached victory lane in a Cup car again.
And then there was 2012: In a year in which he had his best overall performance since 2008, Earnhardt not only hovered near the top of the standings for the first 26 races prior to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he finally won a race again.
End result: But there was a concussion during testing at Kansas in August that he never told anyone about, followed by being caught up in a huge wreck at Talladega during the Chase that resulted in a second concussion and forced him to sit out two races, ending his championship hopes yet again.
Is Earnhardt cursed? You certainly could make a case for that, based upon some of the crazy things that have happened to him.
Even this season, he started out well, ranging from first to fifth through the course of the first 11 races. But as he enters this Sunday's race at Dover, kicking off the second third of the 36-race season, he's dropped back to a season-low of sixth place. He's had three top-five and seven top-10 finishes in the first 12 races, which isn't bad.
But when all is said and done, Earnhardt has become somewhat of a forgotten man this season because more attention is once again being focused on Johnson, who has been No. 1 in the standings for the last seven weeks, as well as the resurgence of Carl Edwards, who has spent the last several weeks close on Johnson's tail in second place.
But when it comes to Earnhardt, his name has become almost an afterthought already, just one-third of the way through the current campaign.
Maybe when you boil it all down, the reason Junior doesn't win more races isn't about him at all, nor his famous name, his team, the organization he races for, the personnel who work with him or anything like that.
Nor is it likely a matter of someone pressing too hard or taking too many unnecessary chances.
No, maybe the real reason Earnhardt doesn't win more races is that he isn't destined to do so. Ditto for a Cup championship; maybe it's just not in his destiny.
Fate hasn't been kind to Junior, from the day he tragically lost his father in the 2001 Daytona 500 to all the trials and tribulations that he's gone through and endured since then.
Maybe what we see today and what we've seen throughout his career, particularly his time at DEI, is the best we're ever going to get from one Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
And you know what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. He's still a good driver in his own right, the sport's biggest fan favorite and a likely first-round inductee when he becomes eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame five years after he retires as a driver.
What's wrong with all that? Not everyone can be a Cup champion or can win races with the relative ease of guys like Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.
Earnhardt has nothing to be ashamed of. He is who he is, and that's pretty darned good. While he may not win as much as he used to, he'll always be looked upon in the hearts of his fans as a winner.
You can't beat that.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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