Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. Finally Contend for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Title in 2014?

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2013

Dale Earnhardt Jr. can never let his guard down at Hendrick Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. can never let his guard down at Hendrick Motorsports.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Could it be? Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally poised to contend—truly contend—for a Sprint Cup title in 2014?

His legions of fans certainly would like to think so.

They recently voted him NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for a record 11th consecutive year. It's a real honor, no doubt, and one that Earnhardt much appreciates.

But he's desperately seeking more end-of-the-season spoils in the year ahead.

Sadly, it's not likely to happen. While there are compelling reasons to hypothesize that Earnhardt is better positioned than ever before to finally contend for the championship his father, Dale Sr., won a record-tying seven times, there are more logical reasons to figure why he won't.

But first, let's go with the good news for Junior Nation.

Earnhardt is coming off his best season in years. Seven years, to be exact.

His 22 top-10 finishes in 36 races in 2013 were the most of his career, surpassing by one his previous career high of 21 that he reached in both 2003 and 2004. Of course, he also won a total of eight races in those two seasons—including a career-high six in 2004 when he finished fifth in the final point standings. (He won zero races in 2013.)

There also is the chemistry Earnhardt has developed with Steve Letarte, one of the nicest guys in all of NASCAR. They clearly get along, and Letarte obviously has put some fast cars underneath the driver, who finished second five times and third twice during the recent season.

Letarte and Earnhardt also have benefited from being in the same Hendrick Motorsports shop as six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. They are in one building on the Hendrick complex, and the cars of drivers Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, along with their team personnel, are housed in another.

Finally, Earnhardt has the privilege of driving Hendrick equipment. It's obviously the best stuff in the stock car racing business.

Now we come to the Catch-22 of the entire debate. The positives that come with being at Hendrick Motorsports also come with some sobering realities for Junior Nation.

Team owner Rick Hendrick also employs Johnson and Knaus. While they share much of what they know, not all of it applies to Earnhardt, and the No. 88 Chevrolet still has to beat Johnson's No. 48 Chevy on the track—consistently, all season long, if Earnhardt is to win a championship this coming year or any year.

Fresh off the 2013 title, Johnson and Knaus show no signs of slowing down and, in fact, seem re-energized by the possibility that history is within their grasp.

Two more titles, and they will have the most in NASCAR's storied history. They appear to be super-motivated to accomplish this, and there are far fewer reasons to doubt that they will win two more than there are to postulate that the Earnhardt-Letarte combination will win one during the same time frame.

Johnson turned 38 in September. Earnhardt turned 39 in October.

This is akin to when the talent-laden Cleveland Cavaliers of the late 1980s and early 1990s could never reach the NBA Finals, much less win a championship, because every year they bumped up against this guy named Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls.

As if having to beat Johnson wasn't bad enough for Earnhardt, the other cars in the Hendrick stable are driven by a four-time champion in Gordon and another star driver-crew chief combo in Kahne and Kenny Francis that has only hinted at what it might be able to accomplish.

The bottom line: Johnson, Gordon and Kahne win races. Earnhardt doesn't.

Since 2007, Johnson has visited Victory Lane 43 times, Gordon 13 and Kahne nine. Earnhardt has done so only twice.

And Earnhardt has to not only consistently finish ahead of his three teammates if he's going to win races and contend for a championship, but at the same time he will be required to ward off a multitude of others in the Cup garage who are proven race winners over the last several years.

You can't win a championship if you can't win races. It doesn't matter how popular you are.


Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz