Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Is 2012 Finally Going to be his Year?
By Jerry Bonkowski
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The years have continued to change, but the question – actually three of them – remain the same for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The first question is the biggest one of all: Is this year Earnhardt finally earns his first Sprint Cup championship, the one that his millions of diehard fans have waited for over 12 agonizingly long years to happen?
Then there’s the second question, one of a more pressing nature: Will 2012 be the year Junior finally snaps a winless streak that not only dates back to mid-2008, but has reached an almost incomprehensible 129 straight starts without crossing the finish line ahead of everybody else?
Boil down both of those questions and you’re left with the third: simply put, is 2012 the season for Earnhardt to finally become the end all and be all that his fans and NASCAR hope for?
There’s no question Junior has the desire. He also has a new attitude that began last season when paired with crew chief Steve Letarte. Frankly, 2012 will be a continuation of what began in 2011 – or in some people’s eyes, picking up where the new driver and crew chief tandem left off at the end of last season in their joint development of trying to build a championship-winning team.
But first, Junior has to get back to the business of what makes champions: winning races. Sure, he came close a few times in 2011, most notably at Charlotte when he ran out of gas while coming to the finish line. While that particular episode was nothing short of heartbreaking for Earnhardt, his fans and the entire No. 88 Chevrolet team, there was one positive that could be gleaned from it: he ultimately may not have had enough fuel, but Earnhardt showed he certainly had the drive, desire and know-how to win again.
“I feel pretty good,” Earnhardt said when asked how he feels about the upcoming season. “I’m frustrated that we didn’t win last year (but) we came close. I’m ready to get back to that. I’m ready to get chances again. I want to win a race pretty bad.
“This (Daytona 500) is going to be a fun experience but I’m looking forward to getting to Phoenix and the rest of the tracks to start really getting control of my destiny and trying to make some things happen for me and win some races.”
Some observers feel Earnhardt was never quite the same for the remainder of last season after the late May failure at Charlotte. But he did mount a comeback of sorts, including qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in three seasons, and then finishing a respectable 7th in the final standings.
That was a heck of a lot better than the agonizing 25th- and 21st-place finishes he was forced to endure in the two previous seasons. If there’s one thing that marks both Earnhardt and his loyal fans are their collective staying power. Even though he’s won just one race since 2007, Junior’s legion of fans continue to support him without hesitation. And even when he’s been at his worst, his fans still think of him as the sport’s best, having voted him NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the past nine seasons.
As if winning his first Cup championship and breaking his winless race streak weren’t enough, Earnhardt is potentially facing perhaps the most serious challenge yet to his Most Popular Driver reign. But rather than that challenge coming from, say, defending Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart, 2011 runner-up Carl Edwards, four-time champ Jeff Gordon or five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt runs the risk of potentially being unseated as the sport’s most popular driver by the new kid on the block, Danica Patrick.
After two seasons of part-time racing in the Nationwide Series – while also still holding down a full-time day job on the IndyCar open-wheel series – Patrick is officially a full-time Nationwide Series driver in 2012, and will also run 10 races in the Sprint Cup Series as a possible prelude to jumping full-time to that class in 2013.
If the fiery and charismatic Patrick shows a significant breakthrough in 2012, it will almost certainly cut into and erode some of Earnhardt’s popularity – unless he starts winning again – and winning a lot.
Whether that will happen starts Sunday at Daytona.
Some observers are even projecting that if newcomer Trevor Bayne could win last year, it may not be a total surprise if Patrick were to win the 500 this year. When asked if winning Sunday would be bigger for him or Patrick, Earnhardt didn’t mince words.
“Me, me!,” Earnhardt said emphatically. “She doesn’t drive for me in the 500, so it wouldn’t matter to me if she won it. If I win it, it would be a big deal for me! As far as what everybody else thinks, everybody is going to have a different opinion about that.”
And even though Earnhardt owns the Nationwide Series team that Patrick races for, he has quickly come to respect her ability, attention and willingness to learn to be a better race car driver and not just be an attractive marketing vehicle, as some people have perceived Patrick to be.
“She goes to the race track and races,” Earnhardt said. “She seems normal, she works hard, she shows up to race, there’s nothing about her that’s quirky or weird, different or surprising to me. I kind of knew her a little bit before and it’s basically what I imagined.
“Once I got to be around her a little more and what was she really like as a driver and how dedicated and focused she was, (I found out) she’s pretty intense.”
There’s no question Earnhardt has had a difficult career. Sure, there have been successes, but there’s also been the inability to win that first elusive Cup title, to break that increasingly petulant losing streak and now potentially have Patrick overtake him as the sport’s most popular face. And no other driver can say he was there when his father was tragically killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Now comes time for Earnhardt to start writing the latest chapter of the book of his life, and that all kicks off with Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt is ready and primed to win.
“We’re sure going to try,” he said with confidence. “Everybody, I think (has a shot to win). At least 35 (of the 43 drivers that will compromise the 500’s starting field) have a good shot at it.”
There was a point not too long ago that Earnhardt was the most feared driver on restrictor plate tracks, with a combined 7 wins and 17 top-5 finishes between Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.
Unfortunately, Earnhardt hasn’t won a plate race since 2004. And the driver who was the most dominating plate driver of his era is now nothing more than an also-ran.
It’s time to change that, Earnhardt vows, and he plans on start doing that Sunday.
(For The Sports Xchange)
By Jerry Bonkowski at Wednesday, February 22, 2012