Is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Glass Half Full or Half Empty as 2013 Season Nears End?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2013

Even though he'll likely finish outside the top five by season's end, Dale Earnhardt Jr. still has lots to smile about how 2013 played out for him.
Even though he'll likely finish outside the top five by season's end, Dale Earnhardt Jr. still has lots to smile about how 2013 played out for him.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Mathematically, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still in contention for his first Sprint Cup championship.

Realistically, Earnhardt has been out of contention for the last two weeks and will likely be officially eliminated if not this Sunday in Texas, then next week at Phoenix in the second-to-last race of the season.

Earnhardt comes into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway 56 points behind the series' co-leaders, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

While Earnhardt's legendary legion of fans are likely still hoping and praying for a miracle that their driver can rally back for the title, there's an easy way to temper that ill-conceived optimism.

When Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon stormed to the win this past Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in southern Virginia, Gordon jumped from fifth to third place in the standings.

That's all well and good, putting him right behind Johnson and Kenseth.

The only problem, though, is that while Gordon gained two spots in the standings, he also gained a grand total of just seven points on the leaders.

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Gordon went into Martinsville 34 points back; he's now 27 points back. At least he has somewhat of a shot at overtaking Johnson and Kenseth in the last three races.

Earnhardt? Not so much.

Even if he were to win each of the last three races—even though he hasn't won a race since June 2012—Earnhardt likely would still come up way short of taking the title.

So let's be realistic and analyze whether it has been a good or bad season for Earnhardt overall.

First, the positives:

1) There's virtually no way he'll finish last in the Chase, like he did last season. Of course, it didn't help that he missed two of last year's playoff races after suffering a concussion at Talladega Superspeedway.

2) He's already earned more poles this season—two—than he did since winning two poles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

3) His starting average through the first 33 races is 13.9, which is the best since his qualifying average in 2004 was 10.9.

4) He had 20 top-10 finishes last season. Thus far this year, he has 19, which bodes well that he'll better last year's mark in the remaining three races.

Now, unfortunately, the negatives:

1) Earnhardt hasn't won a race in over 16 months. And that was after not having won a race in four years before that, and two more years before that, dating back to 2006.

2) He's managed just seven top-five finishes thus far, compared to 10 last year.

3) His average finish last season was 10.9. This season thus far it's 13.5.

4) He was running at the finish in all 34 races he competed in last season. He'll fall a bit short of that number this year, running at the finish 30 times thus far this season.

5) He had 29 lead lap finishes last season. With 25 thus far, he'll finish short this season, even if he has top-10 showings in each of the last three races.

So, has this been a better or worst season for Earnhardt compared to last season or his seventh-place showing in 2011?

One good thing is that for the first time in his career, he made the Chase for the third straight season.

In addition, even with the three races remaining, he's likely to finish with a top-10 finish in the Chase for the second time in three seasons, yet another first for his career.

Another is his relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte is as solid as ever.

But—and you knew this one was coming—Earnhardt just turned 39 years old three weeks ago. He's been racing full-time in the Cup series since 2000, making this his 14th full season.

Some might ask, has he gotten to the point where he's too old to win a Cup championship?

No, there's still hope: his legendary father won four of his record-tying seven championships between 39 and 43. Broken down another way, the elder Earnhardt won championships in four of five seasons from 1990 through 1994.

Of course, Earnhardt Sr. already had three championships by the time he was Junior's age now.

I still think Earnhardt Jr. has at least one Cup championship in him before he calls it quits. He almost looked like he was heading for it last season before the concussion incident at Talladega sidelined him for the next two races and ended his title chances.

Earnhardt has had a good season in 2013. He has nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, he probably could have used a bit more luck—which might have gotten him into the top-five by season's end—but all-in-all he's had a decent campaign.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (far left) still has a huge fan base.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (far left) still has a huge fan base.Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

Unfortunately, we've said the same thing about him in 2003 (finished third), 2004 (fifth), 2006 (fifth again), and 2011 (seventh).

Kind of makes you wonder if he's destined to ever win a championship. But if Brad Keselowski could put together a championship effort last season, handing legendary team owner Roger Penske his first Cup crown in 30 years of trying, Earnhardt still has hope.

Likewise, look at how Carl Edwards tied for the championship in 2011, only to lose it in the tie-breaker (total wins) to Tony Stewart by a mere one point.

So has Earnhardt's glass grown fuller or emptier in 2013? All-in-all, I'd say it's stayed just about the same for the third straight season (even with missing two races last year due to the concussion).

For that, he should feel very good about the effort he's put in and taken out in 2013.

After all, it could have been worse: at least he made the Chase this season and had a decent run, while defending champion Keselowski didn't do either.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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