Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been here before.
An unexpected win thrusting him and his team into the spotlight while fans and media alike claim that it is his year, only to leave everyone wanting at season's end. It's familiar ground for Earnhardt and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports crew, so why should this year be any different?
Simply put, Steve Letarte.
Considering how well the two compliment each other's styles—with Letarte being the aggressive one and Earnhardt being the calm one—they have melded together perfectly. A spot in every Chase for the Sprint Cup field since 2011 (when Letarte first took over the No. 88) can attest to that. This is in stark contrast to the 2009 and 2010 season, when Earnhardt struggled under the guidance of Lance McGrew.
Granted, since the unification of Letarte and Earnhardt, they have only claimed two victories (Michigan in June 2012 and the 2014 Daytona 500), but the ascension of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy has been noticeable. Aside from his first Chase spot in three seasons in 2011, Earnhardt had a career year in 2013 where he ran well at tracks he normally struggled at—including a strong runner-up showing at Dover in September and a third-place finish at Homestead in November.
He posted a career high in top-10s (22) in 2013 and finished fifth in points. On top of that, he seemed on the verge of winning several races (a sight we hadn't seen for a while). After adding his performance in the 500 on Sunday, where he led 54 laps on the way to the victory, he looks stronger now than he has in years.
"This is our year," Earnhardt said at the annual Champion's Breakfast at Daytona following the 500.
The fact that the usually placid Earnhardt feels that way about his chances of hoisting the Sprint Cup championship trophy in November says something about how well the team is running. It's saying that, instead of being content with a good run and being laid back, he's going for the jugular in 2014. Totally unheard of from Earnhardt, yet much needed.
He's not young anymore, for one. At 39, he's taken on the role of elder statesman in NASCAR's scheme of things. He's starved when it comes to success, especially when compared to teammate Jimmie Johnson. He's let countless opportunities fall by the wayside over the years. So for the No. 88 crew to come out the gate swinging like they have, NASCAR could be witnessing Earnhardt's rebirth.
Where will Dale Jr finish at season's end?
He's also not as strained as he used to be during interviews. Instead, he's loosened up a lot as an individual. He even went as far as to start up a Twitter account, @DaleJr, has proceeded to post several "selfies" and even recently hosted an entertaining Q and A session with his followers. He's a new man this season, or so it seems.
With that being said, Earnhardt is set to surprise this season. Expect him to get rough. Expect him to get rowdy. Expect him to ruffle some feathers and take some chances. Letarte is stepping away at season's end, so why not go out there and just give it a go? Letarte has very little to lose at this point, with the exception of his credibility as a crew chief. He has a lot to gain, like Earnhardt. Their legacies will be cemented this season.
Earnhardt has been building a major head of steam over the last 10 races, so it's safe to say that he's going to post more wins and solidify himself as the man to beat. Sure, basing a championship run off of one showing isn't saying much. But Earnhardt has been steadily going up in recent years, and he is poised to have a career season.
Considering Letarte is in a lame duck position, expect for the No. 88 to go for the gold in 2014. They will be championship contenders this year.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @ThatSheltonGuy