Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't come down from the clouds after winning his second Daytona 500, and who can blame him?
In fact, he's taken Junior Nation and all of NASCAR along for the ride. You know Brian France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR, remains downright giddy about the nearly perfect way the 2014 season has begun. In fact, take the record Daytona 500 rain delay of six hours, 22 minutes out of the equation, and Earnhardt's victory in NASCAR's premier race could not have been scripted more to France's liking.
France even joked—and yes, it was a joke—to columnist Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer prior to the 500 that, as Sorensen wrote, "If he had a secret Dale Jr. lever that would have enabled Earnhardt to win, he would have pulled it long ago."
No such lever was necessary, after all. But now another race is upon the Sprint Cup series, and it begs the question: Where does Earnhardt rank among current elite drivers in the series, and has his latest Daytona 500 victory done much, if anything, to improve his standing?
The answer to both questions is that Earnhardt still has work to do.
Yes, Earnhardt currently is the driver atop even our own current Bleacher Report 2014 driver rankings. But now we're talking about current active drivers and their bodies of work over their careers, plus where they stand now in terms of recent productivity and immediate future possibilities.
Any such list determined by those parameters begins with six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. No one can touch him at the top, and Earnhardt, despite what he just accomplished, is nowhere near the same racing royalty stratosphere.
The next two names who come up most quickly when considering raw career numbers among active drivers are obvious: Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. They have seven championships between them. Gordon has 88 career wins and Stewart 48. (Johnson has 66, by the way, but in 290 fewer starts than Gordon and in 86 fewer than Stewart).
But both Gordon and Stewart will turn 43 years of age before this season is out, and Stewart must prove he can come back from a badly broken-leg injury suffered just last August. The gap between them and Earnhardt perhaps has never been slimmer.
The other contemporary of the 40-something or soon-to-be 40-something crowd—which Earnhardt reluctantly will join this October, proving once again that no one remains forever young—is Matt Kenseth, who will turn 42 on March 10.
These two are forever linked because they began their careers as full-time Cup drivers at the same time in 2000. Earnhardt has made 506 career Cup starts; Kenseth 509.
So when it is noted that Kenseth has 11 more wins (31 to Earnhardt's 20), 138 top-five finishes to 116 for Earnhardt and 249 top-10 finishes to 205 for Earnhardt, the statistics clearly offer a compelling argument that Kenseth is the superior elite driver. Plus, Kenseth has one Cup championship, earned in 2003 in the last pre-Chase season in Cup.
Then there is the crop of young—or at least younger—guns who have proven themselves formidable in recent years: Kyle Busch (28 wins), Kurt Busch (24 wins and one title), Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (23 wins each, but Hamlin in 292 starts and Harvick in 467) and Carl Edwards (21 wins).
Earnhardt, quite honestly, is not as aggressive at closing the deal in races as any of these drivers, and in too many seasons has made critical mistakes that have cost him at crucial moments. There were other years when he became overly frustrated too often with his crew chief and couldn't offer the kind of driver feedback that makes bad cars better during the course of races.
And we haven't even mentioned the youngest of the proven guns in the garage. That would be 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski. Is Earnhardt a better driver at this point in his career than Keselowski, the guy Earnhardt once hired to drive for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series?
Considering Keselowski already has 10 wins in 162 career starts, the obvious answer is no.
Add it all up and Earnhardt currently ranks no better than 10th in talent and career accomplishments among active drivers at the moment, arguably heading up a secondary group that includes Greg Biffle (19 wins), Ryan Newman (17 wins) and Kasey Kahne (16 wins). None has won a title. Time is running out for all except Kahne, but even he needs to soon convert potential into real results.
Kenseth, then, is the model that Earnhardt should aspire to imitate this season. His career underwent a rebirth of sorts last year when he joined Joe Gibbs Racing and began driving a Toyota after spending his entire career previously wheeling a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.
That is what was expected of Earnhardt back in 2008 when he made the jump to Hendrick Motorsports. But he's experienced only modest success since then, with the Daytona 500 victory just his third in six seasons at HMS. Sure, he made the Chase each of the last three seasons, but he failed to do so in three of the four seasons prior to that and has never finished higher than fifth in the final standings in his entire career.
Never before in his HMS tenure has Earnhardt been in his current position, where he had real momentum this early in a season that he could build on. It's his final season with crew chief Steve Letarte, his close friend and confidante, and they repeatedly have said they want to go out doing something special.
Upon announcing he would be leaving Earnhardt's team at the end of the season to join the broadcast booth at NBC, Letarte told The Sporting News: "I want to reaffirm my commitment to Dale Jr. and the entire No. 88 team to go win races and challenge for the championship in 2014."
Now, no matter what happens the rest of the season, they can say they did something special. They won the Daytona 500 together.
But to really launch himself into the championship contender conversation, where Earnhardt can point to critics and say he not only had the determination but also the talent to hang with the elite drivers of his day, Earnhardt and Letarte still must do more. They must win more races and they must not only qualify for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, but find a way to thrill themselves and all of NASCAR by sticking around in the title conversation until the very end.
Then, and only then, will Earnhardt truly belong among the very few who make up the most elite group of current drivers in his sport.
Joe Menzer has covered NASCAR for eight years, including six for NASCAR.com, and also has written two books about it. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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