Many commentators proclaimed this 2008 season the year of Dale Earnhardt Jr. How has that worked out? So far, it has and it hasn't.
Dale Jr. and the 88 team set some goals for themselves which they have largely achieved. They won, not only a points race at Michigan, but also the Budweiser Shootout in February. They made the Chase for the Cup. Up until the last few races, the 88 team was a very viable contender to win a championship. Much of the disappointments which have occurred since the Chase began have been the result of plain bad luck.
Have there been miscues by the team? Surely there have been. Some of the miscues this season were made by the driver himself. Some were made by crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Much blame has been heaped upon Eury Jr., and though some of it may well be deserved, much of it is not. Two tires or four? Are we good on fuel? Up or down on the air pressures or track bar?
These are questions that few but the most expert fans of the sport can answer. Most of those experts are already on top of pit boxes. As is the case with any driver and crew chief combination, the comfort level must be there, especially for the driver. Dale Jr. trusts his crew chief, and it appears that he has the final say on that matter.
Problems with pit stops have been the cause for some missed opportunities this well. Even the most well oiled pit crew can and does occasionally make mistakes. A missed lug nut here, a snarled air hose there, and positions are lost on the track, and this season, more than other, track position is important.
Overall, this season has been a success for the 88 team. Goals have been achieved, and hopes and expectations will undoubtedly be even higher next season. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. The more time this team spends together, I feel the better they will be.
Is Dale Jr.'s first season with Hendrick Motorsports the best first season with a new team this year? Critics point at the driver whom Dale Jr. replaced at Hendrick, Kyle Busch.
Kyle has eight wins to Dale Jr.'s one win, that's true, but here's one important fact that many are willing to overlook: After 31 of 36 races, there are only 28 points separating the two drivers. It's very possible that Dale Jr. will finish ahead in the points standings at the end of the season.
Are wins more important than championships? That's debatable. Wins are important, but the ultimate goal of any driver is to be holding the Cup trophy at the end of the year. It is unlikely that either Dale Jr. or Kyle Busch will be holding that trophy in November, but it's possible that Dale Jr. finishes higher in the standings than 2008's golden boy.