Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 7 Reasons He'll Win a Race Before the End of 2011
Predicting when Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win his next race is like predicting who will win at Talladega.
Then again, it may be more difficult than that, since if you were to guess Dale Jr. would win every Talladega race, you would have been right five times out of seven from 2001-2004.
Junior's winless streak stands at 115 races after his 15th-place run at Watkins Glen. His last win came back in June 2008 at Michigan International Speedway, where the Sprint Cup Series will be racing this Sunday.
No one knows exactly when the winless streak will end, but I have identified seven reasons why Junior's next victory will come before the end of 2011.
Junior Needs a Win To Solidify His Chase Bid
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Junior has come oh-so-close to winning a race not once, but twice in 2011. And at both Martinsville and Charlotte, Kevin Harvick emerged as the eventual victor.
If Dale Jr. had held on to even one of those wins his place in the Chase would be considerably more secure.
Without a win, Junior must stay in the Top 10 in the points in order to make the Chase.
With a win, he'd have a chance to qualify for the Chase as a wild card as long as he ranked higher than Denny Hamlin, who is currently in position to claim the second wild card spot by virtue of his one win in 2011.
Upcoming tracks such as Michigan, Bristol and Richmond offer golden opportunities for Junior to score a victory and shore up his position in the Chase. Don't be shocked if his next win comes in the four races before the Chase begins.
Bristol Motor Speedway
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Bristol has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s best track over his entire career. His average finish at the track is 11.48, a full position better than his second-best track, Atlanta, at which his average finish is 12.48.
The high banks of the half-mile Bristol bullring may mean danger for other drivers, but not for Dale Jr. His worst finish in his last 20 races at the track is 18th and he's completed 10,009 out of a possible 10,013 laps during that span.
Despite that remarkable consistency, Junior hasn't led a lap at the track since 2007 and his lone Bristol win came back in 2004.
But that's not to say he can't win there again. In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the difference between a winning car and a 10th-place finish is razor thin. What it would take for Junior to break through for a victory might be a tweak to the car here or a good piece of pit strategy there.
Junior always looks forward to racing at Bristol, and I'm sure he must have it circled as a prime track to finally get back to Victory Lane.
Crew Chief Steve Letarte
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When Junior came to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 he was paired with cousin and longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr. That pairing came to an end in the middle of the 2009 season, when Lance McGrew took over for a couple of underwhelming years.
This season, Junior was given a new crew chief in Steve Letarte, who had been calling the shots atop Jeff Gordon's pit box for the past several years.
Letarte is one of the most supportive and encouraging crew chiefs in the NASCAR garage, and the pairing seemed to produce an immediate turnaround in both Junior's results on the race track, as well as in his attitude. Junior is more optimistic and happier and he credits Letarte for the change:
"No matter what happens during the day, during practice, whatever, when things look bleak, [Letarte] don't change his tone, he don't change his opinion about things, he don't change his expectations and outlook on the day,'' Earnhardt said. "I've learned a lot just being around him."
Earnhardt started off the year strong and rose as high as third in the points. While he has struggled a bit over the last couple of months, he's still ninth in the points and in the past two races he seems to have recovered from the bad luck that had been plaguing the No. 88 team.
The addition of Letarte to Junior's team has given Junior Nation fresh hope for a return to Junior's old winning ways. It's only a matter of time before the pairing pays off with a win. Once that happens, don't be surprised if Junior rattles off a few more before long.
Richmond International Raceway
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Richmond is historically one of Junior's best tracks. He owns a career average finish of 14.3 ( fourth best of any track for Junior), along with three wins, the second-most he has at any track.
Junior has struggled at Richmond over the last couple of years, with an average finish of 26.6 over the last five races with no laps led.
However, he could be primed for his first win at the track since 2006. If he's still near the Chase bubble, winning the race could be the only way to guarantee making the Chase.
Junior knows how to stay out of trouble at the 0.75 mile short track, having completed 99.0 percent of all possible laps at Richmond. This could be where he finally breaks through and proves the rest of the world wrong for thinking Junior Nation is crazy to believe that their driver didn't forget how to win.
Junior Needs To Win To Regain His Old Confidence
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Last December, Earnhardt admitted that his "biggest problem" was "confidence.
"I know that I've outran and beat these guys that I compete with each week, and I just have to remember that the potential is there. I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have.''
2011 is the year when Dale Earnhardt Jr. absolutely must get back to his old confident self.
It was only five or six years ago that Junior was widely regarded as one of the top drivers in NASCAR. Junior finished in the Top 5 in the points three times from 2003-2006, won a career-high six races in 2004 and many considered him on the verge of winning a championship and following in Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s tracks.
Those times seem long past after Junior has won just one race and made the Chase field just once in the last four years. Still, Junior is only 36 years old. Keep in mind that his father, the Intimidator, won five of his seven titles after turning 36.
I'm not saying Junior is about to do anything like that, but he's far from washed up and Junior has more optimism in 2011 than he has in years.
In order for Junior to truly regain confidence in his talent and ability he will need to win at least one race this season. For him to go a third consecutive year without a win would be demoralizing, especially in a year that has shown so much promise and seen so many close calls for victory.
It's Dega, Baby!
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You could say that Dale Jr. won Talladega in April.
That is, he won it for teammate Jimmie Johnson. Junior gave the No. 48 a massive push coming out of Turn 4 to propel Johnson to the win.
Junior has repeatedly said he despises the emergence of the two-car draft at Talladega, but the fact remains that it is one of his best tracks. He has five wins there, the most he has at any track.
No one would be surprised to see the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet celebrating in Talladega's Victory Lane come October. I would go so far as to say that Junior is the top fantasy pick at the track, despite not having won there since the first term of George W. Bush's presidency.
A driver who has led laps in the last 11 Talladega events has to win eventually. For an Earnhardt, there is no such thing as a fluke win at Talladega.
It Simply HAS To Happen Sooner or Later
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't forgotten how to wheel a race car.
Despite going through a severe rough patch the past few years, this is still one of the most talented stock car drivers on the planet. Junior has a secure contract situation and is racing for his pride and for the love of competition. He is simply too good not to win again.
He's come close—very close—more than once this year, and he's due for a win before long. Bad luck can't last forever, and I think Junior Nation will be rewarded for their steadfast devotion to their driver before the end of the 2011 season.
One of these days, the checkered flag will wave before Kevin Harvick reaches the No. 88's bumper, the fumes won't give out until the burnout or Dale Jr. will simply dominate a race from wire to wire.
There are plenty of other reasons to believe Junior will win before the end of 2011. As well as the three tracks I've already mentioned, the Cup Series is heading to Atlanta, Martinsville and Texas before the end of the year. All three of those tracks are in Junior's top five in terms of average finish and could present a good opportunity for a win.
It's just gotta happen, right?