Dale Earnhardt Jr. is actually in prime position to win his first title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has suffered through what feels like an eternity for his legions of fans, but this looks like the season he will finally break through and have an opportunity to compete for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
There are several key factors working in Dale Jr.'s favor. One is that he is now teamed with the No. 48 Lowe's team in the same garage. This exposes him to Chad Knaus, the man who took Jimmie Johnson from a nobody to a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ and 50-plus wins on the NASCAR circuit.
Knaus knows it is on him as much as it is on Steve Latarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. Knaus considers it a challenge to help the No. 88 team exceed all expectations. Especially after many commentators noted the No. 48 team did not appear to be good teammates based on the No. 24 teams results over the last several years.
Dale Eanhardt Jr. has one of the best pit crews in NASCAR.
The No. 88 pit crew for Hendrick Motorsports has developed into a cohesive team under the leadership of Steve Latarte and the adjustment of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to work as a part of the team.
This has been a return to Dale Jr.'s early days as a team leader when he was winning with the No. 8 team and experiencing success. In those days the team was held together by Tony Eury Sr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made reference to Eury Sr. when he discussed the influence of Latarte on his success this year. Latarte has brought a calm and an air of leadership to the team that was missing in the last few years.
DAle Earnhardt Jr proved he can win under pressure by winning in the Wrangler Chevy.
Dale Earnhardt Jr can win; he has proven he has the ability to find victory lane in the last two years despite his 100-plus winless streak. He has won in the NASCAR Nationwide series in a pressure filled situation when he brought the No. 3 Wrangler car to Daytona last July.
The No. 88 team has been on the verge several times and in Martinsville the victory was well within reach if Dale Jr. would have knocked his friend Kevin Harvick for the win. He attempted to give him a few love taps to move him up the track but he was not able to make the pass.
There are several tracks where Dale Jr. can grab his first win in the upcoming months. He has a strong engine under the hood of his Hendrick Motorsports car and the two mile tracks will be a perfect spot for him to win his first race of the season and possibly second.
Dale Jr. was once a regular in the NASCAR Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was once a regular in the NASCAR Chase, and he will once again become a regular beginning this season. He has been in and around the top five all season and a top five spot entering the NASCAR Chase will be critical to cashing in on a title.
With the Chase format as is and the new points system it will be difficult to make up ground once the Chase gets underway. A top five spot in the Chase is possible for Letarte and Dale Jr. by having a strong summer on the numerous big tracks the NASCAR Sprint Cup series schedule.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has lost his mental toughness over the last few years.
As Yogi Berra once said, "90% of the game is half mental." Okay, Yogi wasn't the greatest mathematician, but NASCAR titles are won by the team that learns from their mistakes.
Learning from mistakes has been a theme with the No. 88 team since they became a team. This season the team has meshed well and now they are expecting their driver to do the same.
Dale Jr. has also made less mistakes this year and he has worked on the simple mistakes that have cost him races in the past. He has made major improvements with his pit in and pit out skills. This could be a direct reflection of spending more time with Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team.
Dale Earnhardt Jr has gradually learned how to communicate again in Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Communication is behind every successful organization and the No. 88 team was lacking in the constructive communication department the last few years.
Dale Jr. was easily frustrated and he melted down several times when his team was not making the adjustments correctly. It was a combination of direction from the driver and execution from the team.
Now Dale Jr. has learned quickly with Steve Latarte what adjustments to make and how to ask for them. The two spent time together in the offseason to learn how to communicate with each other and now the extra time has paid off.
Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have been at odds several times this year.
Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have had their differences in the past but this season their relationship is looking frayed. Knaus has dealt with the issue by working more with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Rick Hendrick made the changes to his teams with the No. 88 team as his No. 1 priority. Hendrick made sure Dale Jr. was paired with the No. 48 team to see how a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is won.
Dale Jr. has learned quickly the differences between what a championship team such as the Lowe's No. 48 team works on and what his team needs to do to close the gap. Knaus has made the success of the No. 88 team a priority and he will help them down the stretch if they are in the running and his team is not.
Focus is the key to success and Dale Jr. is focused this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been accused in the past of not being focused on winning races and winning championships. Many have felt Dale Jr. is more focused on his brand than he is on winning.
This year he has cut back on time away from the track, and although he does have a demanding appearance schedule, he has planned it out with limited time away from racing during the season.
This year his focus and determination have become apparent. He is running up front on a regular basis and he has been a top five driver all season despite not winning a race.
When you come form the same genes as the seven time NASCAR champ something has to rub off.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. gave Dale Jr. his god-given ability and instincts but the shadow he has cast on his son has been a source of angst for the younger Earnhardt.
Dale Jr. has learned by example from his father when it comes to winning and running up front on restrictor plate racetracks. He has become the new pied piper just as his father was when the series goes to Daytona and Talladega.
The one aspect of his father's life that Dale Jr. has not been able to emulate is winning championships. He has been close on several occasions but in the last few years he had lost his way. Now he looks like he is on track and ready to win his first title.
Steve Latarte perfected his craft with the four time champ Jeff Gordon.
Steve Latarte is the biggest player in getting Dale Earnhardt Jr. to hold the NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy over his head. Letarte has learned since his days as a car chief what it will take engineering wise and now he has developed the gut instincts of a winning crew chief.
Latarte also is a man on a mission that has been under pressure since the first day he became a crew chief. First he was charged with getting Jeff Gordon back to victory lane and now he is crew chief for the most popular driver NASCAR has ever known. No pressure. "Just win baby," is all Letarte hears from track to track as Dale Jr.'s winless streak continues.
Dale Eanrhardt Jr. made a special trip to victory lane to congratulate Jimmie Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last two years looking to adjust to the Hendrick Motorsports way of doing things. The presence of his cousin and crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. never worked well for Rick Hendrick, but he allowed the team to stay together until he felt they working backwards.
The next adjustment period then began for Dale Jr. He needed to adjust to another crew chief Lance McGrew. McGrew and Dale Jr. never meshed well and it was obvious after their first ten races together but Hendrick made the two work together until the 2011 season.
Now with Dale Jr. and Steve Latarte teamed up, the two both have something to prove and both have a renewed will to win. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has focused on this season as a make it or break t season. To this point of the season Dale Jr. is on track to make it happen but he lacks just one signature win.
Look for him to win a big race and possibly two during the summer. The tracks to watch for a win will be Pocono, Michigan and of course, Daytona. He will take down at least one race at one of these tracks.