Dale Earnhardt Jr. Makes Up for Texas Debacle with Strong Race at Darlington

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 13, 2014

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After finishing dead last at Texas following an embarrassing rookie-like mistake, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left with enough egg on his face to make himself an omelet.

But five days later, Earnhardt got back to cooking the right way, not only earning his third runner-up finish of the season, but also a career-best showing at Darlington Raceway on Saturday.

Hell, he almost won the darn thing. Had Kevin Harvick not taken the lead just before the white flag dropped to indicate the last lap upcoming, Earnhardt could have made arguably the biggest race-to-race comeback of his career, from last at Texas to first at the so-called "Track Too Tough to Tame."

Junior's second-place finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500 will go a long way toward helping his fans—not to mention himself—forget about Texas' forgettable faux pas of running through part of the infield grass, causing him to crash into the wall.

What's more, it will help Junior redeem himself for what was arguably one of the biggest errors he's ever made in his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

Earnhardt needed to do everything he could to put the Texas debacle in his rearview mirror—and quick. With how he finished at Darlington, he did just that. But he also did something else.

He forcefully ended what could have turned into a lengthy slide over the next several races. Remember, this is the same Dale Earnhardt Jr. we're talking about who won a race in 2008 and then didn't win another one until 2012.

And then didn't win another one again until this year's triumph in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Earnhardt came so close to winning at Darlington Saturday night, but Kevin Harvick (left) just had too strong of a car.
Earnhardt came so close to winning at Darlington Saturday night, but Kevin Harvick (left) just had too strong of a car.Chuck Burton

Granted, Junior is still off to the best start of his career—his Texas showing notwithstanding.

But at the same time, and based upon some of the lengthy performance slides he's gone through in the last six seasons, there must have been concern for at least some Earnhardt fans that they might be seeing a movie they had already seen too many times in the past.

You know the title: "One bad finish, and there goes the season."

While he dropped five places in the standings after Texas, from atop the Sprint Cup points standings to a tie for sixth place, Earnhardt regained two of those lost positions with his showing at Darlington.

He's now fourth in the standings, just 26 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate and current points leader Jeff Gordon—and one point ahead of another HMS teammate, fifth-ranked Jimmie Johnson.

There is so much riding on the line for Junior in 2014.

He obviously started in the best fashion possible with his win at Daytona and has continued having the best start to a season he's ever had—but there's still a lot of racing left.

He wants—if not needs—to give soon-to-be-departing crew chief Steve Letarte his first Sprint Cup championship before joining NBC TV next season as an analyst.

What's more, Earnhardt seems like he wants Letarte to have the championship more than himself, even though the two go hand-in-hand. It would not only be Letarte's first (and likely last, giving his moving to TV in 2015) Cup crown, it would also be Junior's.

But there's something else, namely respect. For most of his 15 seasons, Earnhardt has not only been NASCAR's most popular driver, he also has been seeking respect as one of its best drivers on the racetrack.

Unfortunately, he's fallen short far too many times.

And now that he's turning 40 in October, there's an even greater urgency for Junior to show he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as guys like Johnson, Gordon, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch—all past Sprint Cup champions.

Some people crave fame. Others crave attention, while yet others crave anonymity.

Earnhardt is none of those. He simply wants to live up to the legacy left by his late father, who is tied for most career Cup championships (seven) with the legendary Richard Petty.

And if he lives up to some of the high expectations that his fans have had for most of those last 15 years as well, that's simply an added bonus.

It would have been easy for Earnhardt to tank again after Texas. But he didn't.

Instead, Junior borrowed a line from the late Frank Sinatra, "Each time I find myself flat on my face (like after Texas), I pick myself up and get back in the race (like he did in Darlington)."

That's life—Junior's new life now--and he can't deny it. To quote Frank one more time, "Many times I thought of quitting, baby, but my heart just ain't gonna buy it."

Slipping back to his old self is no longer an option. This is a new Junior, with a new direction, new motivation and new emphasis on being not only the best he can be, but ultimately being the best of the best, period.

And if he continues to do what he did at Darlington, bouncing back in strong fashion, it'll be like Texas never happened—and that elusive first Cup championship may still be in the cards by season's end.

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