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Saturday, January 31, 2009

No excuses in 2009: Time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to show he’s a legitimate title contender

In the past, there were excuses that could be made as to why Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never made a legitimate title run in the Cup series. While he was at DEI, the team just couldn’t match up against the giants at Hendrick and Roush.

Last year, his first at Hendrick, he had to get adjusted to his new team, and get adjusted to the new “car of tomorrow”.

Well, that’s all done now. Jr. has settled in to his ride at a solid team in Hendrick, spent a year in the new car, and has all the tools he needs to compete with the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards for the Cup crown.

While none of his fans really expect him to live up to his dad’s legendary success, most are hopeful he can win at least one championship in his career. Now that he’s been in the sport’s top level for a decade, there’s no time to waste, and he needs to show the world he’s more than just a fan favorite.

He has the equipment needed to compete for a championship. One question remains: Does he have the talent?

His detractors would say no, that he’s just a media and fan darling who is more overhyped than Danica Patrick. But his loyal fans still cling to hopes that he will emerge as a true threat to win the Cup.

This year, 2009, should be the year we find out which side is right. I’m not saying Jr. has to win the title to prove he’s legitimate -- that would be an unfair requirement for any driver. But if he can’t step up his game in 2009 and at least pose a threat to the usual suspects at the top of the points standings, the detractors will have even more ammunition against Jr. and there will be very little he can say to defend himself.

I recognize that winning the Cup is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. You’re facing off against the greatest stock car drivers in the world, and if you don’t have a near-perfect season, the title likely will not be yours. A combination of great driving by Jr. and working more effectively with his crew chief will be required if this success is going to come to the #88 team.

His Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson has won the title three straight times, coming to life in the Chase when it matters most, and that is what Jr. needs to do if he wants to be a contender. A key factor will be getting a few victories during the pre-Chase season in order to gain some momentum heading into the Chase. In 2008, all Jr. could manage was a fuel mileage win at Michigan. With a regular season like that, it’s no surprise his Chase was disastrous.

Whatever problems Jr. may have had in 2008 (crew chief squabbling included), I hope he’s cleared them up. Because fair or not, a repeat of his disappointing 2008 season will increase the number of fans who think he’s all name and no talent.

The (very) old and the (very) young
Joey Logano is 18 years old, and will race in the Daytona 500 in a couple weeks. If the stars align, one of his competitors could be James Hylton, who was born in 1934 and will be 74 on raceday. Joining Hylton in attempting the race will be fellow oldster Geoff Bodine (age 59), who has not attempted a Cup race since 2004. That’s one of the great things about NASCAR: Your age doesn’t matter as much as how fast you run. To put things in further perspective, James Hylton was Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1966, 24 years before Logano was even born.


Anonymous Justin Spurgeon said...

I wouldn't say more hype than Danica. He has won close to 20 races. He'll never meet expectations of people because they are outragious. He is a very good driver maybe just not great. He is the most levelheaded superstar I've ever seen.

February 1, 2009 at 9:55 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just another apple and donuts comparison, Danica hasn't had the weight of having a family legacy (load stone) or the responsibility of keeping a company afloat with her name on the front door. She's been a sideshow attraction albeit cute of Tony George from the start. I write this piece off as just another early off season swipe at Junior and his race record. When Senior died at Daytona the series was in deep trouble had it not had Junior to prop it up, the air had gone out of the balloon for the vast majority of fans. France knew it, Helton knew it they needed Junior more than he needed them economically, Elvis had left the arena literally and they knew it. It's impossible to prove now but it would have been interesting to see what his record would have been driving for Hendrick all those years with no pressure and no legacy to follow him. Other than Kyle Petty, Davy Allison and Dale Jarrett who also had this pressure the rest came to the sport as virtual unknowns in stock car racing with zero expectation on them to perform. It's a new year, everyone starts with a clean blackboard and equal let's wait and see how the year plays out before beefing about Junior before any engines have been started.

February 2, 2009 at 10:02 AM 

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