Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 8 Reasons He Has a Good Shot at Winning the Sprint Cup Title

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 8 Reasons He Has a Good Shot at Winning the Sprint Cup Title

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    Prior to his untimely death due to a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt won an incredible seven Sprint Cup Championships. Whether it’s fair or not, this is the burden that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has carried with him over the course of his career.

    Earnhardt Jr. isn’t as skilled or as accomplished as his father, but few, if any, drivers are or ever were. This doesn’t stop NASCAR fans from expecting big things out of Earnhardt Jr., however. Despite the fact that Earnhardt Jr. has never finished higher than third in points, he is among the favorites to win it all this season, especially among the fans.

    Although a poor showing at Infineon Raceway dropped Earnhardt Jr. from fourth to seventh in the standings, he is still well on pace to turn in his best points finish since 2006. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Earnhardt Jr.’s season is that he has performed so well without winning a single race. In fact, he is currently mired in a 109-race winless streak.

    What Earnhardt Jr. has lacked in wins, he has more than made up for in smart and resourceful driving, resulting in consistently good finishes. It is because of Earnhardt Jr.’s perceived evolution as a driver that he has a legitimate chance of winning it all this season.

    Here are eight reasons why Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a great shot at winning the Sprint Cup Championship.

Firmly in Chase

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    Currently sitting seventh in the standings, 48 points up on 12th place Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. has a comfortable position in The Chase.

    This may not seem like a big deal just 16 races into the season, but when you consider that Earnhardt Jr. has made a habit of playing catch-up in past seasons, he is currently in a much better spot than usual.

    Finishing outside the top 20 in points in each of the past two seasons has had much to do with terrible starts to the year for Earnhardt Jr. In an effort to move up the standings, Earnhardt Jr. often had to take risks and hope for a big reward. The opposite ended up happening more often than not, however, in the form of crashes and DNFs.

    Earnhardt Jr. has driven in a much more confident manner in the early part of the 2011 season, and is in an excellent position because of it. Being nestled safely in The Chase, there is no reason for Earnhardt Jr. to start taking unnecessary risks. As long as he keeps getting consistent results, he should certainly be among the 12 drivers vying for a title at the end of the season.

Relationship with Steve Letarte

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    After finishing 25th and 21st in the standings in 2009 and 2010 respectively, things had grown stagnant with regards to Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 team. While Earnhardt Jr. maintains that he had a good relationship with former crew chief Lance McGrew, there is little doubt that a change was needed.

    Enter Steve Letarte, the former crew chief of Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team. Although Letarte never led “The Rainbow Warrior” to a points championship, he did garner second and third-place finishes while directing one of the best pit crews on the circuit.

    The change was a welcome one for Earnhardt Jr. as he often had disagreements with McGrew including verbal spats over the radio. Much of this had to do with frustration, but Earnhardt Jr. obviously needed a new voice.

    The change seems to have done wonders for Earnhardt Jr. as evidenced by his current place in the standings. While it’s tough to decipher tangible improvements that Letarte has made outside of where the 88 car has finished this season, things just seem to be running much more smoothly this season.

     Fuel strategy nearly allowed Earnhardt Jr. to score his first win in three seasons earlier in the year at Charlotte, but he ran out of gas on the backstretch. Although things ultimately didn’t work out, Letarte seems to be pushing the right buttons overall, and it’s just a matter of time before Earnhardt Jr. enters victory lane.

Top Teammates

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    There are very few drivers, perhaps just one, in the history of NASCAR who can say they have three Hall of Fame-caliber teammates. That one driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr. With Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin serving as his Hendrick Motorsports brethren, Earnhardt Jr. has a support group unlike any other.

    This, of course, can serve as both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Johnson, Gordon and Martin may be the three most experience drivers in NASCAR with regards to knowing what it takes to be a champion.

    Martin has never won a title, although he has come close on numerous occasions, while Gordon and Johnson have nine championships between them. This means that Earnhardt Jr. has an unprecedented amount of knowledge available to him in the garage.

    In addition, Earnhardt Jr. has three teammates with a masterful control of the track. This comes in handy at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega that require a good drafting partner in order to succeed. On the other hand, Johnson, Gordon and Martin have championship aspirations of their own. This means that they may not be as willing to lend Earnhardt Jr. a helping hand.

    At Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Earnhardt Jr. was the dominant driver and personality. Without any teammates chasing a championship, they could focus on helping Earnhardt Jr. win one himself. This isn’t the case at Hendrick Motorsports as the drivers are understandably more focused on individual accomplishments. Even so, Earnhardt Jr. should benefit from the culture of winning associated with his teammates.

Performing Despite Poor Qualifying

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    Aside from failing to win races, Earnhardt Jr.’s biggest issue this season has been his struggles in qualifying. Since winning the pole at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. has often had to start in the middle of the pack, or even further back in the field. In fact, he has started in the 21st position or worse in 11 of the 16 Sprint Cup races run this season.

    Qualifying certainly isn’t the be all, end all when it comes to success in NASCAR, but starting near the front of the field can’t hurt. While top cars can still come back from poor qualifying performances on ovals, some tracks, such as road courses, are very dependent on track position.

    Earnhardt Jr.’s difficulty at Infineon Sunday is a perfect example. Earnhardt Jr. was stuck in the middle of the pack for much of the race after qualifying 21st, and ended up finishing 41st after overheating.

    Earnhardt Jr.’s bad qualifying runs make his overall performance this season even more impressive. As it currently stands, Earnhardt Jr. often has to battle throughout much of the race in order to get into a manageable position on the track. If he can make a habit of starting in or around the top 10, though, things would be much easier.

    Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to come from the back of field is certainly encouraging as it shows the type of damage he could do with a slight improvement in qualifying.

Finishing What He Started

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    One of the most unheralded yet important things a NASCAR driver can do is to keep his car intact and finish races. It may seem easy enough, but it takes a certain amount of skill to avoid getting involved in “the big one” and the various other smaller crashes that occur in races on a weekly basis. For the most part, Earnhardt Jr. has been stellar at that throughout the first half of the 2011 season.

    Earnhardt Jr. has registered just two DNFs to this point in the season, meaning that he is usually on the track and picking up points until the very end of every race. The DNF statistic can be a bit deceiving, however. Incredibly, Earnhardt Jr. didn’t suffer a single DNF in 2010, a season in which he finished 21st in the standings.

    The fact remains that Earnhardt Jr. got caught up in wrecks quite often last season. It just so happens that he was able to get back on the track in each instance and finish the race. Earnhardt Jr.’s DNFs this season include failing to finish the final six laps at Daytona, as well as a mechanical problem at Infineon. When it comes to mechanical issues, they are almost always out of the driver’s control.

    Provided Earnhardt Jr. can continue to run clean races and stay on the track, he should be able to remain strong in the standings. Seemingly having more luck this season than he has had in years past, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Hendrick Motorsports

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    As a team, Hendrick Motorsports has asserted its dominance over the Sprint Cup Series for the better part of two decades. When it comes to equipment, pit crews and drivers, no other team in the sport can match Hendrick’s resources. Because of this, Earnhardt Jr. holds an advantage over most drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit.

    Since 1995, 16 Sprint Cup seasons have been completed. During those 16 seasons, a Hendrick car has won the points title 10 times, including each of the past five seasons.

    Although Jimmie Johnson is the five-time defending champion, success has still been spread across the team in recent years. Look no further than the 2009 season when Hendrick scored a top-three sweep with Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finishing first, second and third respectively.

    Earnhardt Jr. certainly hasn’t experienced the same type of success his teammates have during his time with Hendrick, but there is something to be said for being a part of a winning atmosphere.

    It has to have been difficult for Earnhardt Jr. to watch his Hendrick counterparts thrive while he has struggled over the past few seasons, but it probably makes him want to succeed that much more. Seeing firsthand what it takes to be a champion over the past three years should only assist Earnhardt Jr. in his pursuit of a title in 2011.

Due to Win

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    Say what you will about making your own breaks, but sooner or later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is due to get a break that will result in winning a race. That break almost occurred in the form of a fuel-mileage gamble at Charlotte, as has happened so many times since his defection to Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. came up just short as he ran out of gas with the finish line in sight.

    It’s hard to believe that a driver as popular and talented as Earnhardt Jr. on a team as successful as Hendrick Motorsports could go 109 races without visiting victory lane. Such has been the case for Earnhardt Jr., however, and it’s difficult to explain why. One would think that he would have lucked into a win over that timeframe, but if it weren’t for bad luck, Earnhardt Jr. wouldn’t have any luck at all it seems.

    This season has been unlike Earnhardt Jr.’s previous three years with Hendrick, though. There have been numerous races where Earnhardt Jr. has been in the hunt in the closing laps. Those moments were few and far between in the past. It seems to be a matter of time before one of Earnhardt Jr.’s consistently good performances turns into a win.

    Once Earnhardt Jr. breaks the seal and wins one race, I get the feeling more will follow. Much of a driver’s success in NASCAR has to do with confidence, and Earnhardt Jr.’s may very well be restored with a single victory. That is certainly a scary thought for his opposition.

Consistency

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    Arguably, the most important feature a successful NASCAR driver must possess is consistency. From preparation to results, it is absolutely paramount to be consistent if a driver wants to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

    Consistency is something Earnhardt Jr. has struggled with over the past few seasons and over much of his career in general. While he has sprinkled in good finishes here and there, Earnhardt Jr. has experienced far too many hiccups as a member of Hendrick Motorsports.

    This season has been much different for Earnhardt Jr., though, as he has finished in the top 10 eight times, matching his total from all of last year. This type of consistency alone will be enough to keep him in The Chase, but it will be extremely unlikely and nearly impossible for Earnhardt Jr. to win the Sprint Cup Championship without winning one, or perhaps more accurately, multiple races.

    As previously mentioned, if Earnhardt Jr. continues to run in the top 10 and top five consistently, things are bound to go his way eventually, resulting in a win. It is extremely important, however, that Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t start to press for a victory if it doesn’t come soon.

    That will only spell doom as it will adversely affect him in the standings. As frustrating as it may be now, if he realizes that continuing to run consistently gives him the best chance to win a championship, he will have a legitimate chance to do so.

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