Danny Peters · Tuesday February 15, 2011
For the first time in twelve attempts at the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s eight-time Most Popular Driver will start on pole in the marquee season-opening race: a fitting tribute to his father who passed away in a turn four wreck ten years ago to the day this Friday. This time last year, Junior started in second place and nearly parlayed his solid starting spot into a drive to Victory Lane with a thrilling last-lap slalom through the field. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough to unseat Jamie McMurray, who recorded an unexpected, morale-boosting victory in the Great American Race. Back then, that confidence was supposed to carry over to first runner-up, or so it seemed the moment Junior burst into the media center that night like a kid in a candy store, knowing how close he came to pulling off a shocker and reestablishing himself on the NASCAR circuit as a contender.
But for Junior’s legion of fans, the second place start to the season was not a sign of things to come, merely a miserable reminder of a miracle that never came to pass each week. It was not until the circuit swung back through Daytona in July that Earnhardt recorded another top-5 finish, ending a five-month slump that only reappeared shortly thereafter. That was just one of three in the 2010 season – the other coming at Loudon in the first race of the Chase – in what became a second straight unmitigated disaster of a season with Hendrick Motorsports.
Now entering the fourth year of a sponsor-laden, lucrative contact with NASCAR’s very own rainmaker, Mr. Hendrick, this year is unquestionably a vital one for Earnhardt Jr. as to date he has not had a lot of success in arguably the sport’s best equipment. In fact, that’s putting it mildly when you look at the stats: 108 races, one win, 15 top-5’s, 29 top-10’s and now three poles. Not the stuff of legend, that’s for sure. And in fact, Junior’s failure to trouble the front-runners was enough to force the head honcho’s hand that reshuffled his crew chief deck – an announcement made before the ink on the Double J fifth championship articles was dry.
Paired with the personable and talented Steve Letarte and now sharing a shop with old five-time himself – Jeff Gordon, the previous tenant, is now teamed with the ageless wonder Mark Martin – this really has to be a “last roll of the dice” for Junior and Hendrick Motorsports. If this new deal doesn’t work, short of giving him Chad Knaus (which clearly won’t happen) nothing is going to make a difference. Early into Speedweeks, Junior already likes what he sees: “I really enjoy the way the team approaches their jobs and what their goals are,” he explained recently. “I sort of like the way they go about business, how they conduct themselves. I’m enjoying everything I’m seeing.”
But it’s still early, and no points have been doled out, so it’s not surprising it’s all hearts and flowers at the moment. The real test of this new relationship, however, will not be at Daytona. It will be in the weeks following, and especially on the intermediate mile-and-a-half tracks that make up so much of the schedule. In many ways, the 500 is not much more than a beautiful distraction. Yes, it’s the sport’s most important race and yes, if Earnhardt, Jr. won it would give his team a massive fillip, but as I say, his results in the weeks after will be what most defines his year and, to some extent, his driving future.
Before all that, Junior needs to get through not just the hoopla of NASCAR’s Super Bowl — an expression I’ve always hated, I might add, because it’s not the Super Bowl and it’s not the NFL, it’s the Daytona freaking 500. Compounding matters this year, Junior also has to deal with the raft of articles, stories and news items surrounding the tenth anniversary of the death of the sport’s iconic figure who just happens also to be his father. Now I realize, unless you’re related by bloodline to me and reading because you have to, you know this point already, but it’s one worth making because it just adds extra helpings of pressure on a driver that doesn’t exactly need any more – he has quite enough already.
Earnhardt has been sanguine in his approach toward what is, in many ways, a huge milestone. “It’s awesome, however creative people become,” he says. “I just love seeing him honored and love seeing him recognized. He’s fortunate and I’m fortunate to have witnessed it and to have been a small piece of it, be a part of it… it will be a good experience for me. I’m hoping that [his mother] Martha is watching every second of it and enjoying it and his brothers and sisters are pleased. I hope it’s a positive experience.”
Positivity is something Junior will get in spades from his new crew chief, but a cheerful disposition will only get you so far. Results and consistency are what matters. And speaking of consistency, what is interesting is to compare Junior and Mr. Consistency himself, 2003 Cup Champ Matt Kenseth since they were both part of the same rookie class; a class which, for the record, also included Dave Blaney, Scott Pruett, Mike Bliss, Stacy Compton, Jeff Fuller and Ed Berrier. Now unless you’re a serious statto and know the answer already, the natural inclination would be to say that Kenseth blows Junior out of the water. Actually, the reality is not so much. Kenseth has one more start (400 to Junior’s 399) but their records are eerily similar. Both have 18 wins, Kenseth has 101 top-5’s to Junior’s 91 and 189 top-10’s to Junior’s 150. On the laps run front, Kenseth has completed 114,751 laps (leading 5,788) while Junior has just 599 less (114,152) but has led 6,712 laps – nearly a thousand more. The two drivers are also close in average finish with Kenseth enjoying a slight advantage, 14.8, to Junior’s 17.0.
Now to me, this is an interesting comparison because, as I say, their records are extremely comparable and most would agree Kenseth has had a stellar career. Yes, Kenseth does have that all-important championship but looking at their respective records there isn’t much of a difference and certainly much less than I would have thought at first blush. I’ve written in the past about how much would be “enough” for Junior in terms of a career but the more I look at it, the less certain I am that the driver needs to win a championship to define himself. He’ll never win seven like his father, nor will he even approach 76 race wins, so in some senses, whatever happens he can’t help but fall short. What is, however, key is that he starts to re-establish himself as one of the drivers who can finish in the top-5, top-10 at every kind of track: some consistency, if you will, returning to his record.
First though, there is the big song and dance this Sunday afternoon at which fans and broadcasters will honor his father’s memory with a silent salute on lap three. “I’m here to race,” claims Earnhardt. “I understand the situation, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my father is honored and remembered throughout the week – I’ll enjoy that – but I don’t really get into the hypothetical, fairy-tale sort of stuff. I just want to focus on my job.”
That focus – an unerring focus at that – is exactly what Junior needs as the season unfolds. Daytona, in the end, will be a blip on the radar nine months from now. It will be what happens over the next few months at the non-restrictor plate tracks, when the lights fade and the pressure begins to overwhelm the No. 88 once more that will become career-defining rather than a second victory – or lack thereof – in the biggest race of all.
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