“It doesn’t matter if they are booing you, or cheering you, as long as they are making noise”
Dale Earnhardt was quoted saying this during his illustrious career. The statement is simple, but effective. It summarized Dale Earnhardt’s career as a driver. He always mattered.
Before I go forward it is important for me to make two statements:
1. This post is about Dale Earnhardt Jr, not Dale Sr. I will refrain from comparing the two. They are not similar in any way as drivers, and should not be compared.
2. I am an avid Nascar fan. I watch nearly every race, and will always use information based off of research and what I see (hence the name of the blog)
Dale Jr is Nascar’s most popular driver and will continue to be until he retires. Yes, Dale Jr has made the Chase the past three years; but more often than not during race telecasts, Dale Jr is often lost in the shuffle over the numerous contenders. Which leads me to the point of the conversation, is Dale Jr still relevant as a title contender?
The number 2. When one thinks of Dale Jr one must remember this number. With the backing of Hendrick Motorsports for the last 5 years Dale Jr has won 2 races. Comparing this to his teammates: (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne) who have won 2 championships 31 races, 6 races, 4 races, 6 races respectively. This is also looking over Junior’s two “dark” years (21th and 25th in points). Since Steve Latarte’s arrival (who had 9 wins at the time of his arrival with Jr.) and Jr’s move into the same garage as Jimmie Johnson, Junior has not missed the chase. In 2012, Dale Jr had the 5th most top 10 finishes in the series, and led the points after race 20. Both are impressive stats. However, his one win (tied for 4th with 6 other drivers) and 358 laps led (10 in the series) did not indicate that he was close to title contention.
This leads me to Jr’s age, 39. Only two drivers have won their first title at an older age, Dale Jarrett (42) and Bobby Allison (45). Both of these drivers had more career wins than Jr at this point (22 and 80 respectively). Jr has 19.
At one point in Jr’s career he was a threat to win on a variety of tracks. He was also a lock to contend on superspeedways. From 2000-2004 Junior was also the most dominant restrictor plate racer in the series (7 wins). Mind you that there are only 4 of these type races per year. But, since the switch to the “Car of Tomorrow”, Jr has not won a single restrictor plate race. This may indicate that he had some sort of advantage during these events, and that restrictor plate wins had more to do with the team’s car than his ability. After all, Michael Waltrip won his only 4 races on these tracks with the same equipment. Considering these facts, it seems that Junior is on the trend down. But lets remove the stats and look at the situation objectively.
Dale Jr has the best equipment, a top flight team and crew chief, and ability to take the car home in one piece (13 DNF’s in 5 years). Dale Jr’s style is not aggressive. He typically always finishes races and gets as many points as possible. This was very rewarding in the old style of points system. But. as the world saw with Carl Edwards in 2011, points racing does not always lead to titles.
Watching Dale on the raceway, he has the speed to run in the top 5 or 10 consistently at every track. But, once he gets to the top portion of the field, he never seems to have the ability to drive around his competition (such as Johnson, Busch, or Hamlin). Is he afraid of pushing the car too hard? Possibly. Is he less talented that the competition? Maybe. There have been 16 different winners in the past two years. At any rate, Dale Jr does not to seem to be trending down, it seems that the competition around him has stepped up.
Dale Jr’s statistics and talent suggest he is a second tier driver. He is more Ryan Newman than Kyle Busch. But there is hope. Dale Jarrett had a very similar path to Jr. His father was a legend, and he had unrealistic expectations coming in. What worries me is that Jr won the bulk of his races early in his career, Jarrett did not. It will take a late career awaking for Jr to win a title, and it must happen in the next four to five years. Jarrett and Allison moved to better teams to find their first championship, this is impossible for Jr. My head says that he will not win a title. My heart says he will. Why? He is resilient and talented. Junior has all but dug himself out of the whole he created by not living up to pressure of the move Hendrick. He has also proven to have speed and the ability to put himself in positions to win.
For now, “they are still making noise”, but not for much longer…