Dale Earnhardt Jr: Can Daytona Resurrect His Fading Career?
From the very first day Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped foot into the Hendrick Motorsports racing facility, the racing world began to analyze what sort of impact Earnhardt would have on the rest of the Sprint Cup Series.
His fans began to search and inquire if this move was needed to bring back the success that he had early on in his career; or would the change of scenery be a little too overwhelming for him to focus on his future as NASCAR’s most popular driver?
With fame comes the uncertainty of knowing that no matter what Earnhardt does, whether right or wrong, each one of his moves will be put under a microscope while going through a very meticulous examination process.
Is it really fair to cast this type of judgment on just one driver, while leaving the others out because they don’t carry the Earnhardt last name?
Some may call it “the nature of the beast”, because of his immense popularity, seen by the legion of fans that support him no matter what the outcome may be.
Earnhardt has driven in 82 races since coming over to HMS to begin the 2008 season, and out of those 82 races only 10 of them were non-points events; yet for each one of them, Earnhardt has been scrutinized for one reason or another.
Looking back to his only points win with HMS on June 15 2008, even this win didn’t come with its share of controversy.
Today was the day of redemption as Earnhardt’s car gave a final sputter of relief, and decided that enough was enough and quietly went to sleep.
Earnhardt spent two laps during the final caution on the apron of the track, using a strategy of staying on the gas until he got past the pace car, then cutting the engine to conserve fuel, and firing up the engine again as the pace car cruised past.
NASCAR did warn the No.88 team about the tactic, and of course it didn’t sit too well with Matt Kenseth who finished the race third.
Kenseth thought it may have been a bit shady.
"I didn't think you could pass the pace car," Kenseth said. "I thought you had to stay close up, but if I was in their position, obviously, I'd be doing the same thing, trying to make it to the end on fuel.”
Earnhardt never let it bother him, even though he knew that much more controversy was sure to follow.
"My fans are happy, and I'm happy for them," Earnhardt said. "The other half are going to tear this thing apart on how we won this race, but I got the trophy, and I got the points, and I got to see my team and my owner and my family tonight happy as they've been in a long time."
Now that Earnhardt is about to embark on his third season with an organization, who was able to dominate 2009 by sweeping the top three spots in the Sprint Cup championship point standings.
Earnhardt’s chances at once again redeeming himself are just as good as they were in 2008, and maybe even more since he is coming back to a track that has been more generous in the past than what Michigan had been.
His restrictor plate resume is a very impressive one, and when you take a deep look into his numbers they could easily send a chill up the spines of his most faithful followers.
Earnhardt has never been shy when it comes to flexing his star power, at a track that has the Earnhardt mystique written all over it.
In 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has recorded two wins, six top-five finishes, 11 top-10s and has led 383 laps.
He averages a starting position of 11.5 and a finish of 15.6. In 10 Cup seasons, Earnhardt has finished all but two events at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Breaking down the numbers, Earnhardt has 12 NASCAR wins at Daytona: two in points-paying Sprint Cup races, five in the Nationwide Series, three during qualifying events and two in exhibitions.
He has won the Daytona 500 (2004), the Pepsi 400 (2001), two Budweiser Shootouts (2003 and 2008) and three Gatorade Duel qualifying races (2003, 2004 and 2008).
Earnhardt will be starting his 10th Shootout, an event that he has won twice (2003 and 2008) and was the runner-up three times (2002, 2004 and 2006).
He has finished outside the top 10 only twice, including last season when he led a race-high 23 laps and was collected in a late-race incident in Turn 4.
In the 500 itself, Earnhardt has scored one win, three top-five finishes and five top-10s in 10 Daytona 500 appearances.
Earnhardt led 59 laps during his Feb. 15, 2004 victory, when he defeated Tony Stewart by 0.273 seconds.
He has led the field in seven Daytona 500s for a total of 141 laps. With numbers such as these, it’s no wonder that NASCAR’s seven-time most popular driver can’t wait to get the season started, especially at a track where he has had this much success.
"I look forward to seeing everybody, seeing the other drivers and crew members and everyone we haven't seen all offseason. I look forward to hitting the track and getting some speed and going fast,” said Earnhardt.
“We get down to Daytona and get to go right into drafting practice with the Shootout car, so you get to do a little racing right off the bat. It's good to get to the track and get it out of your system."
Earnhardt also added on three new road crew members, with all of them coming from within the HMS organization.
Mechanic Kevin Hulstein and lead engineer Chris Heroy previously worked with the organization's No. 5 team, while engineer Chris Doherty was a member of Hendrick Motorsports' research and development team.
"I'm excited to see how that correlates to performance on the racetrack. It's a good thing, and Lance (McGrew, crew chief) has done a great job working with Alan (Gustafson, No. 5 crew chief),” said Earnhardt.
“They have formed a great bond and have a lot of respect for each other. They have an alliance to help both teams." Lance McGrew, who came in during the 2009 season taking over the crew chief duties for No.88 team, is also very optimistic about the team’s chances for the 2010 season.
One important facet that McGrew is focusing on is the long, 36-week season that is ahead of the team instead of just the 500.
"Daytona is one race. Arguably it's our most important. It's our Super Bowl that kicks off our season.
"It's a great report card of what you have achieved during the offseason,” said McGrew.
McGrew also added that, “We have worked very hard on the team, the structure of the shop and building stronger, faster cars.
"I think it takes four or five races to set the tone. You can't go down there with all your cards on the table because you never know what can happen. You can have a freak motor failure or a part breakage or get hung up in a wreck that's not of your doing.”
This is a team where dreams are supposed to come true, maybe not for all their drivers, but at least for the drivers that have come over with high expectations.
Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Mark Martin all have met those expectations, and this season it is Earnhardt’s turn to put the scrutiny to sleep; at least for the first 36 weeks of the season.
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