This could very well be the most important year ever in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career. Not only does he turn 40 years old in October, more importantly, 2014 will be his final season with Steve Letarte as his crew chief.
Without question, Letarte has been Junior's best crew chief since Tony Eury Sr. during the younger Earnhardt's early days at his father's shop, the (unfortunately) now defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc.
With Letarte headed to NBC as an analyst in 2015, there's somewhat of a sense of urgency that Earnhardt not only get back to winning races this season, but that this could very well be his best—and potentially last—chance at that elusive first career Sprint Cup championship.
Who will replace Letarte? Good question. Whoever it is, he'll have huge shoes to fill.
One thing Junior would like to do is send Letarte out as a championship-winning crew chief. But to do so, he has to win races—lots of them, in fact. His lack of wins over the last seven seasons—no wins since 2012 and just two wins since the start of the 2007 season—is in stark contrast to the early part of his career. All told, Earnhardt comes into 2014 with 19 career wins, 115 top-fives and 204 top-10 finishes in 505 career starts.
Still, there are several race tracks on the circuit at which he could potentially take the checkered flag in 2014, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500.
Let's break down the races where Earnhardt could very well come out on top.
Remember this? Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win in the 2004 Daytona 500
While some NASCAR fans have memories like elephants and can quote you chapter and verse of who finished where in a particular race 30 years ago, others have a hard time remembering what their favorite driver did last week.
Pop quiz: Who has finished runner-up in the last two Daytona 500s and in three of the last four?
If you said Dale Earnhardt Jr., you'd be right.
Earnhardt has two career wins at Daytona International Speedway, including the biggest win of his racing tenure, the 2004 Daytona 500. And with his recent success in three of the last four editions of the Great American Race, he is most definitely knocking on the door for a second career win in the 500 this year.
With Steve Letarte in his final season as crew chief, what better way for Earnhardt to start that season—as well as potentially kick off a championship-winning season the right way—than to win on Daytona's high banks on Feb. 23?
Earnhardt loves the short one-mile track at Phoenix International Raceway.
He had good success earlier in his career there with a pair of wins, then struggled year after year. But he's done well in his last two races there, finishing fifth last spring and fourth last fall. He's primed for a win at Phoenix, particularly in spring, when the weather and oftentimes brutal sun—try driving down the frontstretch and going into Turn 1 virtually blinded by the sun—shouldn't be as harsh.
If he comes up short in the spring race, there's always the fall Chase race. One way or another, Phoenix is a win waiting to happen for Junior.
This is another track that has recently gone from bad to good on Junior's list of success.
He's started 21 races there, with five top-fives and six top-10 finishes. But in his last two starts there, he seems to have finally figured the place out, finishing third in 2012 and runner-up in 2013.
With its two-mile length and wide turns, Junior will feel right at home again there again this season.
Texas was the site of Earnhardt's first career Sprint Cup win in 2000. Since then, he's compiled four top-five and 13 top-10 finishes.
He's had some very strong success in the fall Chase race over the last few years, as he finished seventh there in 2011 and 2012 and was runner-up in 2013.
With the new Chase format, if he is able to continue the success he's had there in the fall, Texas could potentially be the one track that puts Junior in the final four competitors vying for the championship two races later at Homestead.
Richmond International Raceway has long been one of Earnhardt's favorite and most successful tracks, with three wins, nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes.
All three of those wins came in the spring race; not coincidentally, he's finished second (2012) and 10th (2013) in the last two spring races there.
Much like Phoenix, Richmond has the potential to be a win just waiting to happen for Junior.
Junior's only win thus far at Bristol: August 2004
Earnhardt always seems to get extra pumped up to race at Bristol, one of his favorite tracks, but especially so for the hot Saturday night summer race in late August.
Unfortunately, just because he loves the half-mile bullring, that doesn't mean he's had overwhelming success there. In 28 starts, Earnhardt has just one win (which came in the summer race), along with seven top-five and 14 top-10 showings.
He finished sixth in last year's spring race and 10th in the summer race.
With a few breaks, and if he stays out of trouble and wrecks, he could potentially break through for another win there this summer.
Or even better, he could win both races there in 2014.
Let's face it, no track has been more successful for Earnhardt than the massive 2.66-mile high-banked surface at Talladega Superspeedway.
Of Earnhardt's 19 career wins, five have come at 'Dega, including an incredible streak of four in a row and five of seven (the other two races were runner-up finishes) from fall 2001 through fall 2004.
Junior is coming off a runner-up finish there last fall. Could that be a sign of things to come in 2014?
There's no question he's primed and he's ready.
Now, if he can only stay out of other people's wrecks, he may have a good chance of winning there this fall (if not the spring race).
Let's daydream for a second here.
Homestead has been nothing short of a nightmare for Junior. In 14 starts, he's never won a race and has managed just one top-five finish and two top-10 finishes.
But something happened in last fall's Chase finale at Homestead. Much like Fontana, it appears Earnhardt has finally figured this place out, finishing a career-best third there last November (after finishing 11th in 2011 and 10th in 2012).
Could this be the year Earnhardt finally breaks through in the season finale, perhaps even sealing his first Sprint Cup championship with his first win at the South Florida 1.5-mile track? Maybe it's time his nightmare turned into a wonderful dream that finally becomes reality this November.
What a way to end the season and send Letarte out as a winner, right?
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