Why 2014 Will Be Dale Earnhardt Jr's Best and Last Chance at a Sprint Cup Title

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr., talks to crew chief Steve Letarte, right, during his first practice since recovering from concussions at Martinsville Speedway  in Martinsville, Va., Friday, Oct. 26, 2012.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/Associated Press

Let's face it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans are a patient bunch. They've been waiting for their favorite driver to win a Sprint Cup championship since he made his debut in NASCAR's premier series in 2000.

Back then, Junior was 25 years old and had a long career ahead of him.

But as we enter the 2014 season, Earnhardt will be starting his 15th Cup campaign, and he still does not have his first Sprint Cup championship.

Even worse, after earning 15 wins in his first five Cup seasons, Earnhardt has managed just four wins since the 2005 campaign. Do the math: That's four wins in the last nine seasons, certainly not the kind of thing that breeds championship drivers.

Still, Junior has one more—and potentially his last good—shot at that elusive championship in 2014. It will be the last year that he'll have Steve Letarte—arguably the best crew chief Earnhardt has had since Pops, Tony Eury Sr., was his crew chief during his most successful season in 2004—atop the pit box.

That season, Earnhardt won a career-best six races, had 16 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes and wound up fifth in the championship standings (he was third the year before, but he had four fewer wins).

The 2013 season was Earnhardt's best since that illustrious 2004 campaign. He finished fifth in last season's standings and, while he did not earn any wins, he had 10 top-fives and a career-best 22 top-10 finishes.

But with the recent announcement that Letarte would be leaving Hendrick Motorsports and his role as Earnhardt's crew chief at the end of 2014 to take on a new role as TV analyst for NBC, a sense of urgency is very likely staring Earnhardt right in the face.

If Junior doesn't win a title in 2014, a year in which he'll also turn 40, it's likely he may never, ever win that elusive championship.

That's why he and Letarte have to look at this season as if they're using a blender: They have to throw everything in it, shake it up, mix it up and hope the final product is delicious and satisfying.

In other words, a championship.

Obviously, Earnhardt has to start winning races again. Just two wins since 2008 (six seasons) is not the kind of thing you build a championship run upon.

That's why Earnhardt and Letarte will have to adopt more of a Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus approach when the season kicks off next month at the Daytona 500. They'll have to pick their spots and then use their strengths to get the best possible performance at each and every racetrack.

There's no question that an Earnhardt win at Daytona would be an outstanding way to kick off the season, not to mention make a statement that 2014 may very well be the year we finally see the long-hoped-for Earnhardt championship.

Letarte is only 34 years old, four years younger than his driver. He's likely to have a long and very successful career on television. But at the same time, it's likely that Letarte would want to end his career as a NASCAR crew chief by going out as a winner.

That's kind of the way Ray Evernham went out. Evernham shepherded Jeff Gordon to three championships, the last together being in 1998. And while he came back in 1999, he lasted just over two-thirds of the season before leaving the team to become the point man to start Dodge's return to the sport after nearly 30 years away from it.

So in that regard, Evernham indeed did go out as a winner as the defending championship-winning crew chief.

That lesson won't be lost on Letarte. He actually started working at Hendrick Motorsports shortly before Evernham and Gordon won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, and he saw what it meant for a crew chief to go out on top in the manner that Evernham did.

But there is admittedly an obstacle of sorts for Earnhardt and Letarte to win it all in 2014—and it really has nothing to do with getting back to Victory Lane multiple times in the season (although that would help immensely).

Namely, the season that Earnhardt and Letarte will try their best to get their first championship together will also be the same season that Johnson and Knaus attempt to make history by tying the legendary Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most championships won in a career (seven).

With the dominating way Johnson performed in 2013, it's likely he'll pick up in 2014 where he left off after winning his sixth Cup crown. And while Knaus and Johnson have been an immense help to Letarte and Earnhardt, there's no way the former is going to lay down for the latter, just to let Letarte and Earnhardt win the championship.

If anything, it could be a real dogfight under the HMS roof in 2014. I don't mean that in a bad way, but the heightened needs for both sides—Letarte leaving vs. Johnson's bid for championship No. 7—will undoubtedly bring out the best in everyone involved.

The question is who will it bring out the best in the most?

That's what Letarte and Earnhardt have to do, figure out a way to beat Knaus and Johnson in a way that few have done over most of the eight seasons. That's a pretty tall order indeed for Letarte and Earnhardt, but there won't be another chance for them to achieve such an accomplishment after 2014.

To quote the old Seals and Crofts pop hit of the 1970s, it'll be a case of "we may never pass this way again" for Letarte and Earnhardt in 2014.

And if they do come up short, about the only way Earnhardt may ever win a championship after Letarte departs is perhaps the most improbable possibility of all: Knaus moves from Johnson's pit box to Earnhardt's in 2015.

But with Johnson and Knaus having their eyes set not only on breaking Petty and the senior Earnhardt's record, but potentially going for as many as 10 championships before they call it a career, a Knaus-Junior pairing simply isn't going to happen.

Junior has to do it in 2014, lest his long-suffering fans may never see him do it at all.


Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski