Question of the Day: Is this the year that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will turn it around and start winning races? [Updated]
Shawn Courchesne, Hartford Courant
It is the fashionable story around NASCAR to predict big things for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, most especially this weekend at Daytona. Yet, there is no evidence to back it up.
It’s the 10-year anniversary of his legendary father’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. That will surely have prognosticators lining up this week to forecast a Hollywood ending of Sunday’s Great American Race, with a beaming, beer-soaked Earnhardt standing in Victory Lane, the triumphant hero a decade after family tragedy.
In three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports -– arguably the best team in NASCAR –- Earnhardt has been unspectacular as the anchor of the organization’s four Sprint Cup Series competitors. In 108 points events for Hendrick, Earnhardt has one victory, a 2008 fuel mileage win. He has five top-five finishes over the last two seasons, a span of 72 events.
In 2010, while his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson drove to his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title, Earnhardt finished 21st in the standings. Over the final 18 events, he had 13 finishes of 19th or worse. The numbers tell a story, one that likely won’t have a fairy tale ending.
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Jim Peltz, Los Angeles Times
Yes –- if Earnhardt wins, or comes very close, early in the season. Either would go far in lifting the psychological burden and lack of confidence that’s increasingly weighed on Earnhardt as his winless streak dragged on to what is now 93 races (and he’s found Victory Lane only once in the last four years).
Early success -– especially a storybook win at the Daytona 500 this weekend on the 10th anniverary of his father’s death -– also would give Earnhardt the momentum that’s key in any sport.
Will his pairing with new crew chief Steve Letarte help the cause? Winning the Daytona 500 pole was a nice start, but remember: Letarte had been crew chief for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, and Gordon has now gone 65 races without a win himself.
Keith Groller, The Morning Call
The conspiracy theorists already are stirring. The same cynics who believe that every NBA playoff series that goes seven games is fixed are ready to pounce should Dale Jr. win the Daytona 500 on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death at NASCAR’s most famous track.
Really, what could help the sport and its sagging TV ratings more than having its most recognizable driver come out of his doldrums and win NASCAR’s Super Bowl, especially when in this case an entire season follows the Super Bowl?
But winning poles is not the same as winning races, and while Junior’s pole-taking performance may have given Sunday’s race an extra PR boost, it does not necessarily foreshadow what would be a storybook win or a competitive season ahead. Hendrick Motorsports is trying its best to revive Junior’s career, but it’s still up to him to avoid the mistakes that have kept him out of Victory Lane.]
Photo: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Credit: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images