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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