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Even after a turnaround season, Junior needs to be more productive in 2012

By admin | December 27, 2011

By Richard Allen


In this time of year when many of us tend to look back and assess the past year, it is appropriate to gauge the past seasons of some of NASCAR top participants. It goes without saying that drivers such as Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon with their championship contention and race wins had successful campaigns. Trevor Bayne’s season could be considered a success, despite a serious illness, due to the way he burst into the national spotlight by winning the Daytona 500.

Had the Busch brothers not imploded at the end of the year, their seasons could have even been considered successful.

But aside from all of those mentioned above, what of the sport’s most popular driver? Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has to be part of any season ending NASCAR discussion due to the fact that he has so many fans.

So, can Junior’s 2011 season be labeled a success?

After having missed the Chase for the Championship in 2008 and 2009, Earnhardt did manage to qualify for the ten race playoff this season. However, the #88 team was never really a serious contender for the title throughout the season’s stretch run and ultimately finished seventh in the overall Sprint Cup standings.

During the past off season, Hendrick Motorsports enacted some major shuffling of crew members and garage assignments among their four teams. That realignment meant Junior’s cars were to be prepared in the same shop as those five time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Also, veteran crew chief Steve Letarte was brought over from the #24 crew and placed on top of the #88 pit box in a move that was hoped would provide a calming presence on the other end of the driver’s radio.

While making the Chase certainly did show improvement over the two previous finishes of 25th and 21st in the standings, Junior’s numbers in terms of top-5s and top-10s did not see radical improvement. And as has been the case since 2008, the third generation driver went winless over the course of the entire thirty-six race schedule.

But it should be pointed out that Junior was very nearly a winner in the Coca-Cola 600 until his fuel cell ran dry literally within sight of the finish line.

In the end, Earnhardt scored four top-5s and twelve top-10s in 2011. He had posted two and three top-5s in the previous two seasons respectively. In 2010, Junior scored eight top-10 results.

For the sake of comparison among his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon posted three wins, thirteen top-5s and eighteen top-10s in 2011 while Jimmie Johnson had two victories, fourteen top-5s and twenty-one top-10s. Even in a dismal year, Mark Martin managed ten top-10s for HMS.

In my view, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. experienced a bit of a turnaround in 2011 and did meet one of the criteria for a successful season. But, his numbers of wins and high finishes still pale in comparison to his two highest profile teammates.

Considering that he is driving for the best organization in NASCAR, if not even in all of professional sports, Junior should be doing more with what he has. Success for this company is not measured the same as it would be for lesser teams. Yet, Junior only manages the numbers of drivers for those lesser teams.

To illustrate that point, Marcos Ambrose, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, posted a win, five top-5s and twelve top-10s in 2011.

In the early years of his career it looked as if this driver was bound for a multitude of race wins and perhaps even a championship or two over the course of his career. Junior will turn 38 years old in October of 2012. Achieving anything like the goals just mentioned seems highly unlikely at this stage of his career unless he gets something going very soon.

In my opinion, 2012 is a pivotal year for Earnhardt. It is time for him to do more than just lead the sport in souvenir sales. It is time for him to lead the pack on the track. As I’m sure will be posted in the comments section of this column, his fans may stick with him no matter what but it is time for the driver to expect and get more from himself. Anything less than winning races should be viewed as a disappointment in the coming year for the sport’s most high profile personality.

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Topics: Articles |

13 Responses to “Even after a turnaround season, Junior needs to be more productive in 2012”

  1. Nascarxtm Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    For heavens sake, why the hell did I start following you? If Dale Jr healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and instituted world peace, articles like this would still pop up. NOTHING he does will ever stop the yapping done by some in the media who find fault with whatever he accomplishes no matter how great. He finished 7th in the chase. Gordon finished 8th yet you say Gordon had a successful year while Jr didn’t. Even Mark Martin gets kudos for his top 10s. Are you so brain deficient that you cannot understand how ridiculous you sound?

  2. Tommy T Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    It’s responses like the one by Nascarxtm that cause fans of other drivers to poke fun at Junior Nation.

    There is nothing in the article that is inaccurate. Junior does drive for the best team in racing and he should be winning races. Did you fail to read the stats? Gordon had 3 wins which is why Rich said he had a successful year. Both Gordon and Johnson almost doubled Jr’s top 10s.

    But his fans will throw out the usual excuses like Hendrick doesn’t give him the best equipment or they favor Johnson and Chad, so on and so on.

    If you want to like the guy then go ahead but don’t try to pretend he is as good as other top drivers. He’s just not.

  3. Offkilter Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Pivotal year for what? Losing his ride or is there some sort of preconceived notion that there is an invisible barrier that dictates that he will never win again if he’s over the age of 39?
    Well, he is in no danger of losing his ride. And unlike most sports, drivers are usually in their prime on into their 40’s. I’d like to see him run top 5 consistently and start winning again. It’s hard for JR fans like me to watch races when he’s racing for 12th place against Lagano all the time. NOTE to all jr fans… If you have trouble finding jR in the pack because of the 88 paint scheme of the week blending in, just look for the bright orange 20 car and JR will be close.

    All, that being said…GO Jr!!

  4. Richard Allen Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    A pivotal year if he is to ever live up to the expectations originally set for him.

  5. Nascarxtm Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Well Tommy T, if the media trashed your driver as often as they do Junior, you would understand why I wrote the previous post. No matter how he performs, nothing is ever good enough for those in the media. Nothing I said was inaccurate either. Unless you have walked in the shoes of a Dale Jr fan, you can’t understand. And of course I read the stats. The media is impressed with any other driver with Jr’s stats, but not Jr himself. I guarantee you that when he wins they will start counting all over again how long it will be before his next win. It’s an obsession with them.

    I didn’t throw out excuses. However I voulf give you reasons. With your attitude, though, that would be pointless. So go on believing he is not as good as other top drivers. You will not be the first. Words are powerful. Especially when they are drummed into fans nonstop. It has become the norm, and apparently you have believed every word.

  6. The Dude Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Kasey Kahne, Junior’s future teammate, had as many top 5s in the Chase as Junior had all year… for a team that no longer exists. Next year could be rougher on Junior than looking back on the last three suggests.

  7. Russ Says:
    December 27th, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Jr. certainly is a valuable part of the HMS team and has been for years. He brings something that no one else can,The Earnhardt name. It really is quite amazing the attention paid to a driver whose record is no better than it is.

    Really does it matter whether he wins another race? Ultimately he will have to, as no one can lose them all. I suppose then the conversation will change to “when is Jr. going to retire?”

  8. Kevin Says:
    December 28th, 2011 at 11:14 am


    I was really surprised at the end of the season that Jr had so few top 5’s and top 10’s and laps led, yet was still able to make the chase. These statistics can only mean one thing. What Jr did have in this season, that he hasn’t had in recent seasons, is consistency. While he may have struggled in a race, he had very few finishes worse than 25th and was able to keep from having bad points days. Whats more is that he was able to challenge for victory in a half dozen races this season.

    There is reason for hope in the Dale Jr camp @ Hendrick. If Steve & Jr can take that consistency & add some speed, handle & strategy to it, #88 will be back in victory lane this season. Likely more than once.

  9. Steve Says:
    December 28th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    While drivers like Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin aren’t satisfied with how they finished off 2011, Jr appears to be fully content with his season based on him backing into the Chase and finishing 8th with no wins and only 4 top 5’s. This should give you a little indication as to where his head is at and where his will to win is.

    I honestly don’t think he has the will to win a championship anymore. If he did, he would have punted Harvick at Martinsville this year to win the race.

    Having said that, it should be just about time for the media to send out their “Jr needs to _______ or else” or else articles to start the season. Trouble is, nobody seems to know what the “else” is. Can you guys put any more pressure on this guy?

  10. Russ Says:
    December 28th, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Jr. is a highly paid professional athlete. In each sport those guys are expected to produce every time - or else. If not, theres always somebody younger, faster or more talented. Seems to me he has no reason to complain.

  11. Mr. Tony Geinzer Says:
    December 28th, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Duh,this is reality check time for Jr. and NASCAR and if NASCAR Realizes Jr. is just as ineffectual as Kyle Busch and I find that they need Rookies to grow up,man.

  12. Offkilter Says:
    December 28th, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Steve on post 9. I agree. Even though i dig the way Jr has established himself as a clean driver, i sometimes find myself wishing he’d be more aggressive. Everyone knows that if the roles were reversed at martinsville and the 88 was in front of the 29, and harvick was in the middle of a long winless streak, the 88 car would have been jacked up and harvick woulda been smiling in victory lane sayin” man im sorry, jr , but its just one of them racing deals… He was holding me back from a win… i’ll call him next week and talk… Woohoo what about this budweiser team finally getting a win??”

  13. Overra88ted Says:
    December 28th, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Dale Jr. 2012 - 15th to 20th in points, O wins. 2012 highlights; pity pass entry to Sprint all-star race … again, Na$crap Most Popular Loser award… again. Maybe a checked flag from Jimmie, Jeff, or Kase.