The Frontstretch: How Much Will Be Enough For Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? by Danny Peters -- Tuesday April 1, 2008

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How Much Will Be Enough For Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday April 1, 2008


Last year, ahead of the Spring race at Martinsville Dale Earnhardt, Jr. expressed frustration at the sheer dominance of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon on the smallest track the Sprint Cup Circuit has to offer. On Sunday, the No. 88 finished behind the 24 and 48 once again; but while the frustrations remained, the expectations were far different. This time, all three were running for Hendrick Motorsports, something few would have predicted at the time of Junior’s annoyance twelve months earlier.

But none of them would have ventured a guess as to what else was in the forecast; that the second time around, it would be Junior, not his teammates, who truly had the upper hand, as the son of a legend works to manage the burden of great expectations set before him.

Whisper it cautiously at this oh-so-very early stage of the season, but it’s looking good for the Kannapolis, North Carolina native. The sixth place finish for Junior at the half-mile paper clip may have been a bronze medal performance within Hendrick, but it moved his record to a Cup Series best five Top 10s in the first half dozen races. He now sits fourth in the overall standings, 69 points back from leader Jeff Burton and 151 points ahead of the perilous Chase cutoff spot of thirteenth, a position Junior knows all too well. Right now, he’s looking more like a title contender this season than a man precariously positioned to sit on the bubble; in fact, it's probably fair to say only a weeper-induced disaster with the luckless Casey Mears has prevented Junior from leading the standings. In the meantime, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have languished behind towards the last half of the Top 10, their struggles undergoing public scrutiny behind the kudos of Junior’s early success.

Of course, all is not perfect in the No. 88 team’s world … but it’s getting there. OK, he still hasn't managed to lock down that all-important first victory; Sunday's sixth spot stretched his winless streak to 67 races. But despite the lack of a trip to Victory Lane, Junior can have few, if any, complaints regarding his form thus far. Whether he will win it all this year remains to be seen; however, both the solid start and the omens look positive to date.

But with this season's title still a long way from being decided, here's my simple question pertaining to Junior: when he quits top level racing, how will he be remembered? What will be the Dale Junior legacy? What and where will be his signature moment? Will the son of the man most credit with NASCAR's explosion in popularity meet expectations? Will he satisfy the ardent desires of Junior Nation? And will he be a slam dunk, automatic entry into the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Or will the critics and naysayers who've long argued he's a good, not great, driver be proven right? The answer to the question might be a decade and more in coming — and at just 33, there's plenty more to come from Junior — but as always, his achievements will be measured against those of his illustrious father.

From a pure statistical perspective, it seems a safe bet now to say that Junior will not approach his father's total of 76 wins. With 17 victories to his credit in 297 races, Earnhardt Jr. would have to win at a five race per season clip for the next decade plus; which, given the parity and relative strength of the competition, seems a gargantuan task. One place where Junior will end up beating his dad is in the Nationwide Series, though; he has 22 victories (and counting) while his father finished with 21. On the Cup side, there are currently 38 drivers (active and retired) who have won more races than Junior; but if he can double his current total, he will finish up in the all-time Top 20 most successful. That would certainly place him in elite company, for sure… but still a long way from his Dad's 76 Cup triumphs.

And as far as Championships go given the Chase format, the prevalence of younger drivers getting Cup rides and the sheer relentless competition make the biggest trophy the hardest one to come by. Still without a title at this point in his career, it again is not a stretch to say Junior won't come vaguely close to his father's total of seven.

So, when he unclips his window netting and eases through the window of his Cup car for the very last time, by what standards will his career be judged to have been a success? How much will be enough? One fact is utterly unarguable; with a last name of Earnhardt, his legacy is measured by one criterion alone - Sprint Cup Championships. Junior Nation, you suspect, will expect nothing less from their favorite son over the next few years to come; but the Chase format is a fickle beast, and the fact is you need a slice of luck as well as that all important consistency. Junior could make the Chase for the Championship ten straight times, and never quite get the racing luck needed to get over the hump. Would that make his career a failure? Mark Martin fans would suggest otherwise.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be smiling now, but will he be smiling when he looks back on his career after hanging up his helmet for the final time?

Something Junior certainly shares with the Batesville, Arkansas native is the adoration of the fans. And while you never know what will happen in the Cup Series, it's as close to a cast-iron certainty as you can get that Dale Jr. will retire as the Most Popular Driver in the history of the sport. If you're in any doubt, just look at the stands at any given race, and listen to the roar when the No. 88 takes the lead each and every time out. Not only that, but read the comments section of a negative article about Junior or glance through the message boards. There is much hype about the "fabled" Red Sox Nation, but from what I've seen, the Boston denizens have nothing on Junior Nation. Of course, popularity is a “nice-to-have,” not a must have quality; Junior knows this better than anyone. It is still all about winning.

The driving part of the man’s career, however, might just be half the story. Witness the growth of JR Motorsports from its infancy four years earlier, when it ran with just one employee through the street stock division. At this point, JR has two fully funded Nationwide teams, a 66,000 square foot facility, and — at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March — Mark Martin piloted the No. 5 Chevy, secured JR Motorsports’ inaugural win. Ironically, Martin's win followed a late race run in with the No. 88 of fellow JRM driver Brad Keselowski. The youngster's time will come, and for a company that might just have a very bright future, it's apropos that such a respected veteran secured the maiden victory. Junior the driver is and will continue to be fun to watch, but Junior the owner may just be an even more compelling story. Teresa will not run DEI forever, so that's a storyline to look at for the future; when the time comes for her to leave the business behind, will Junior follow suit or fall back into his newfound sense of happiness?

When it's all said and done and Junior stops racing at the highest echelon, it will be fascinating to look back and compare his career against the best in the business. As for what will be considered “enough,” well, I'd say nothing less than at least one Championship and somewhere in the region of 30 wins would be considered successful for him. But first things first; Junior needs an inaugural HMS victory in the No. 88 car and to concentrate on cementing his place in the 2008 Chase. And if he makes the field, then anything can happen. It sure should be interesting to watch.

Author’s Note: Please feel free to leave a comment below as to what you think will make Junior's career a success overall. Be as specific as possible in your answer; let the debate begin!

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


©2000 - 2008 Danny Peters and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

04/01/2008 08:16 AM

Well, just another Jr. article! Too bad there is nothing really interesting to say about him!

But I guess from a writers standpoint, just put “JR.” in the headlines and someone will read it!

Very imaginative!

But totally not interesting!

Meanwhile, back at the race track!!!!

04/01/2008 09:53 AM

Good article!! Keep em coming any and all info about our beloved Jr. is welcome. Jr. Nation Thanks you for the read!!!!Regardless of others opinions…..

04/01/2008 09:57 AM

Important message for the Mooresville Police . Be on the lookout for a stalker at Dale JRs house . Danny , you have set new records here regarding hero worship . True, Dale is single , but don’t get your hopes up .
Dale is a nice guy , good heart , but hardly a candidate for saint- hood . His racing record is at best average . Compare his record with drivers who started at the same time , for instance Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson . See any difference in results ? I do . And Dale SR. never ran a Nationwide race , he ran Busch races , and the only reason his totals aren’t much higher than 21 is that he stopped running the series a number of years before his death .
Another interesting fact you might want to keep in mind , is the record Dale JR. had at DEI in his first years , is actually slightly better than his record so far at Hendrick .

Butch Camp
04/01/2008 11:52 AM

I was (still am)a Dale Earnhardt fan, try to be a Jr. fan but it’s getting harder. He blamed his inability to win on Teresa & DEI in general. Now he’s with the team that was supposed to produce him as a winner.Well he doesn’t look much different to me than when he was in the Red 8 car.Simple fact is he just isn’t that good. He’s living on his dad’s name. He’s not as good as him on or off the track& never will be. I feel for him,living in Dale Earnhardt’s shadow has to be hard.Ask Kyle Petty about living in the shadow of a true legend.I wish Jr. all the best but he’s probably as good as he’ll ever be now.Wonder if Rick Hendrick ever wonders man did I screw up by letting Kyle Busch get away?

04/01/2008 12:47 PM

“Another interesting fact you might want to keep in mind , is the record Dale JR. had at DEI in his first years , is actually slightly better than his record so far at Hendrick .”

Unless you are talking about his Busch Career, no it’s not.

1999- Coca-Cola 600- 16Th, Jiffy-Lube 300-43rd, Peppsi 400-24Th, Exide Batteries 400- 10Th, Napa 500-14Th- 1 DNF.

2000- Daytona 500-13Th, Dura-Lube 400- 19Th, 400-10Th, Cracker Barrel 500-29Th, 400-40Th, Food City 500-38Th- 2 DNF’s.

2008 5 top tens, two top fives, and no dnf’s.

Kevin in SoCal
04/01/2008 12:53 PM

I’m far from am Jr fan but even I think you’re being a bit rough on him, Butch. None of the Hendrick drivers have won yet, but Dale did win the Shootout and his Duel at Daytona. Its only six races into the season! Should we call Tony Stewart a failure this season because he hasnt won but his teammates have?

Now, I cant understand Dale’s enormous popularity. His father seems to be more popular in death than in life. Bill Elliot was always voted the most popular driver in the 90’s, not Dale Sr. If Dale Jr’s name was Dale Smith Jr he would be just another driver about as popular as Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, or Kevin Harvick with similar wins but no championship. And I think he whines too much and is spoiled over his number last year. Numbers belong to the owners, not the drivers. You didnt hear about Eliot Sadler wanting to take #38 with him when he moved to Evernham. No, he just accepted what number was available and took it. What about Hendrick? He has history with both the 5 and the 25 car numbers. But that wasnt enough for Jr, he had to have his own number. And more than half his wins have come at the same tracks, which doesnt show the versatility and skills that a good NASCAR driver has. No, Dale Jr has a car and his fans because of his father’s accomplishments, same as Kyle Petty, and those are pretty hollow in my eyes.

04/01/2008 01:42 PM

Oh, I “forgot” to answer your direct question: “what will make his career a success”??

ANSWER: When he retires!

How can you describe “success” using an average driver as the focal point?

Danny Hamlin
04/01/2008 02:07 PM

Why isnt anybody talking about Denny? He tore it up this weekend. And that new Fedex commercial is pretty hilarious. DH is the new JR. Bring it!

04/01/2008 02:52 PM

Jeffrey, yes i was referring to his DEI Busch team . It looks to me as if leaving DEI was only a step sideways , not a step up .

True Fan
04/01/2008 04:55 PM

Dale jr. is as good as they come driving a race car and 5 top 10’s in 6 races speaks for him.He’s not the best right now but I know everyone ahead of him in the points standings is looking over their shoulders!

04/01/2008 05:14 PM

Hey True Fan!! Yep, you are correct, the other drivers are “looking over their shoulders” allright!

They wonder what the smell is back there!

(sorry, I just could not resist)!! LOL!

04/01/2008 05:42 PM

All you Jr haters wonder why there is so much print on Dale Jr.You folks complain, complain, complain! And yet you guys are always here; reading every story you can about Jr. Are you folks conflicted?

04/01/2008 06:19 PM

Larry you are so right.

Douglas you must enjoy being a jerk. You can not say enough bad things about Jr. I looked back over a few days and the only time you comment is to bash Jr. and one day Jeff Burton. So sad to have gone so nuts with hatred and jealousy.

I don’t know who your driver is but he must be really good and doesn’t have as many fans and you can’t handle it or they are a loser.

As far a Jr. being a average driver. Look where he is this year. Of the FULL TIME drivers for 2008 he is tied 7th with Kurt Busch in total wins(who has had a championship) 1 win ahead of Matt Kenseth (who also has won a championship). So he is right up there with drivers who have won championships. That is out of how many full time drivers for 2008 or wannabe full time but can’t make the race?

Go read articles that don’t talk about Jr. As you are starting to sound like a 6th grader with all the jabs. LOL at you.

04/01/2008 06:45 PM

Honestly, what it all boils down to is that if you’re a Junior fan, he’s doing just fine now and you’re happy.

If you’re NOT a fan, then why you would continue to read and post about him says more about YOU than it does either Junior or his fans. Think about it.

Back OT…Nice article. Very balanced and well-thought out. Thanks!

Kevin in SoCal
04/01/2008 08:38 PM

We read and post bad things about Jr to point out that he’s not the great driver his fans make him out to be. He’s human just like the rest of us. Who cares what he’s doing this year, he has won only two races in the last three years. That’s called a slump. It took Jeff Burton five years to get out of his slump.

True Fan
04/01/2008 08:49 PM

Good point Kevin in SoCal !

04/01/2008 09:19 PM

Jr bashers are obviously just angry that their driver isn’t getting any media time. Too bad!!! Jr. has overcome so very many obstacles that out of the limelight drivers never gave a thought to, for that alone he deserves credit for not poking a few faces and losing his cool.

04/01/2008 09:37 PM

Junior bashers might be envious but they darn sure ain’t stupid Kevin of SoCal is right on. Take it for what it’s worth fancy ; I mean Nancy.

Kevin in SoCal
04/01/2008 10:28 PM

Nancy, the other drivers arent getting any air time because even when Jr is running bad, the media and the TV focus all their attention on him!!! We’re tired of it and we want it to stop. There are 40+ other drivers on the track who deserve just as much air time whether they run in the top ten or they crash out, we want to know why.

Butch Camp
04/01/2008 10:50 PM

Kevin, I’m not being rough on Jr. just think about the two wins you mentioned they were at Daytona, that & Talledega are his tracks he could win there in a car off the showroom floor.Also I’m not a “Jr. hater” I would love to see him start winning,but facts are facts Kyle Busch (who I’m not a fan of) is better than him.Like I said earlier he’s got a lot of class & handles living in his dad’s shadow very well, I think though he wants badly to be his own man.May someday he’ll get there, but it’ll take a championship to do it.

04/02/2008 04:25 AM

you ppl who come in to whine about jr this jr that…let the guy be his own man, he has talent, let him show it, if he does great if he dont then oh well, but ppl just using a jr related topic to bash on jr because hes not dale sr, hes not jimmie johnson hes not jeff gordon hes not richard petty, or even as hot as kyle bush is doing right now…, or how he gets too much air time…big deal i see plenty of coverage on other drivers each week, and i have to say from what i seen on fox, jr hasnt got much air time this year except for the shoot out and the duel, so using this fourm as a way to get on the nerves of jr fans is real lame!

04/02/2008 09:45 AM

Gordon and Jimmie get more race coverage than Jr by far and mostly because they lead races plain and simple. We will also see JG and JJ Tony when they are running bad. The media pays the most attention to the leaders and past popular champions. We will see the leader with anybody trying to make a pass circling around for 10 laps break for commercial and come back and show us the leader for another 10 laps then they will start to go thru the field make it to about 13 drivers and go to commercial again. There has been MANY times a driver has been in the back and moved up several positions thru a pack of cars but will we see how hard they were racing? NO. We won’t see that car unless they make it into the top 10. Jr, IS the most popular driver and the fans want to see him even if he is running bad . Be glad then you might get a peek at some of the other cars around him.

We also see alot of Kyle Busch why? Because he shakes things up with his crazy driving. He has a ton of talent and yes HMS should have kept him (but he is a handful)and dropped Casey. I like Casey alot but he doesn’t have the talent Busch does.

If the Jr bashers have a problem with so many articles about Jr. stay out of the web page and quit commenting. Look at articles that are about someone else. They get one or two comments usually thanking the writer. No back and forth comments/slams all day and even into the next day. You bashers are the ones who keep the coverage going. If you want an end to it stay out and don’t give the web page the hits as they write about a driver that gets the hits.

I don’t even open a web page that if it is about a driver I don’t have in my perfered group.

04/02/2008 02:28 PM

Danny peters ROCKS!!

Butch Camp
04/03/2008 11:37 AM

Idon’t care how much publicity he gets, but he wouldn’t get near as much as he does if not for his last name, I’m probably more of a fan of his than anyone else on the track, but I’ve finally accepted that he’s not the best on the track, not even close. I don’t know him probably never will but I think he would trade all the press for a chance to be his own man out of his dad’s shadow & win races. Like I said before it has to be rough living in Dale Earnhardt’s shadow while fans are expecting you to be everything he was.

04/04/2008 10:23 PM

It is plain and simple, Jr has been named the most popular driver 5 years in a row? Who do you want the editorials to be about? Lets see… maybe Lake Speed, or possibly a breaking story on Morgan Shepherd, with a Kenny Wallace silly laugh thrown in for good measure. If you don’t like Jr articles, don’t read them. Quit trying to be a Democrat liberal and censor the press. I don’t read stories on Kyle Busch because I don’t like him. Douglas, you and Kevin can do the same with Jr.

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