If you don’t think following in the footsteps of a legend is easy, just ask Kyle Petty. Dale Jr. has been following in his fathers footsteps since he came up to Winston Cup racing in 1999, and unlike the Legend, who won 7 Cup titles before him, has yet to win one. He did finish 3rd in 2003, but that was as close as he has ever been.
When the 2012 season started back in Daytona in early February, is seemed that a curtain went up and a new and improved Dale Earnhardt Jr emerged. His whole attitude, demeanor and confidence appeared new. He has carried himself well, and for the first time in his career, sounded like a winner.
Until he was teamed with Steve Letarte as his crew chief, he always had a “woe is me” attitude that I quite frankly, was tired of hearing. There was always something wrong with his car, something wrong with the track, or “somebody wrecked me”. After Letarte came over from Jeff Gordon’s team and took the reigns, things, along with Jr’s attitude started to change.
With double digit finishes in the four previous campaigns, he eked out a 7th place finish in 2011, which included 4 top 5’s as well as 12 top 10’s. The turnaround was born. I’m not sure who was responsible for the decision to send Letarte to the #88 Team, but whoever it was, made the right call. Dale Jr had previously went through crew chiefs like a hot knife through warm butter.
The 2012 season began season began with a second place finish in the Gatorade Duel, and the Daytona 500. He didn’t finish out of the top 15 until The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington in May. And while continuing to field the same questions every week about his winless streak, still only positive things came from Nascar’s most popular driver. No excuses, no blaming someone else, just a smile and “we’re going to get our win”.
First came the win at the Sprint Showdown in Charlotte, then the big win came in June at Michigan. A race where he dominated, by leading 95 of the 200 laps, and taking the checkered flag with 100,000 fans cheering him through his burnout and trip to victory lane. The monkey was finally off his back, and everyone could quit talking about the streak.
Unless Dale Jr can get a victory tonight at Richmond, he will have to trade his current second place position for a 6-7 seed when the Chase starts in Chicagoland next week. Then the real test begins, and we will see if he can do what the Legend did. After all, the Legend had to win his first title before he could win number seven. The road will be tough, Old Five Time wants to be Old Six Time, and Denny Hamlin wants the glory that evaded him in 2010.
I think Dale Earnhardt Jr has that first Championship in him somewhere, but I know, if it is to come this year, he will have to keep those top 5′ and top 10’s coming, and get at least one win somewhere. Who knows, with the new attitude, a great Crew Chief, and some luck, Dale Jr can get hot like Tony Stewart did last year, and maybe now is his time.
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