June 21, 2012
By Nicholas Schwartz
It took 144 races, but the biggest and most excruciating winless streak in all of sports was finally broken last weekend in Michigan.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. last won in Michigan all those years ago, it was what had become a rare occurrence. Earnhardt hasn’t won all that often in the second half of his Sprint Cup Series career -- but absolutely no one would have predicted he’d suffer for four years before taking the checkered flag again.
The win was almost a relief, not just for Junior Nation, which is sizable as ever, but for the entirety of NASCAR. CNBC’s Darren Rovell correctly pointed out after the race that Junior has the biggest last name in all of sports -- not to mention all of the immense pressure to succeed that goes along with such an honor.
My guess is that Earnhardt’s next winless streak is considerably shorter than his last one was, but now that the dark cloud of finishing second or worse is behind him, Junior shouldn’t be concerned with that at all.
That’s because, as of right now, through 15 races of the 2012 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a bigger goal to chase than just race victories. For the first time in his illustrious yet underwhelming career, Earnhardt has a very good shot at his first Sprint Cup Series championship.
For a man as closely watched and adored as Earnhardt, his quiet and methodical course through the 2012 season has been nothing short of brilliant. He’s been in contention in a handful of races and racked up 6 top-5s and 12 top-10s -- but perhaps more importantly, he’s minimized the damage on those rare occasions where the No. 88 car isn’t good enough to be running near the front of the pack.
Following Junior over the course of the season used to be a wild ride, with just as many peaks as valleys. Earnhardt didn’t even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2009 and 2010, and he already has one more top-5s in 2012 than he did over 72 races in those off years.
Earnhardt has been startlingly consistent in 2012 as his partnership with crew chief Steve Letarte at Hendrick Motorsports has flourished. He has just one finish all year outside the top-15, and that was a 17th at Darlington Raceway in the Bojangles’ Southern 500, but even then he picked up the bonus for leading a lap.
Tony Stewart proved last year that a driver’s form over the first 26 races is rather irrelevant—all that matters is how you fare in the final 10 -- so it’s difficult to conclusively pick any ironclad favorites for when the 2012 Chase begins in Chicago, but Junior will certainly have two crucial assets to draw from: the confidence gained after a solid season, and the resources allocated by best team in the business at Hendrick Motorsports.
It will be important for both the fans and Earnhardt himself to keep one win in perspective, though, moving forward. Though his victory at Michigan was a big deal, it’s still just one win over the last four years, and it’d be unreasonable for anyone to think, even Junior, that he will now rip off four or five more victories over the course of the year. As long as Earnhardt and Letarte stick to the same strategy each week and race smart, Junior will be in position for the biggest win of his career come November.
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.