The Frontstretch: 2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. by Summer Bedgood -- Friday December 14, 2012

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2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Summer Bedgood · Friday December 14, 2012

 

2012 Ride: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2012 Primary Sponsors: Diet Mountain Dew, National Guard, AMP Energy
2012 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2012 Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

Stats: 34 Races, 1 Win, 10 Top 5s, 20 Top 10s, 0 DNFs, 1 Pole, 12th in points.

Best Finish: 1st (Michigan – June).
Average Finish: 10.9.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

2012 Team Ranking: 4th of 4. With all three of Earnhardt’s teammates inside the Chase and Earnhardt missing two of the last 10 races due to a concussion, Earnhardt’s No. 88 was last among the four Hendrick Motorsports cars.

High Point: Earnhardt’s undisputed high point of the year would be returning to Victory Lane for the first time in three seasons. Adding to the thrill was the fact that Earnhardt’s “w” came at the site of his last victory: Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day weekend. Because of his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. a victory on such a weekend is meaningful both to Earnhardt and his fans. Unlike his last win which was won on fuel mileage, however, the win came in dominating fashion, as Earnhardt led a total of 95 laps for the win.

Low Point: Also undisputed, Earnhardt’s lowest point of the season was sitting out two races because of a concussions sustained during a Kansas tire test and worsened not long after during a last lap crash at Talladega. While he was unlikely to make a serious run for the championship, it ruined a potential top five finish in the Chase and raised further questions about NASCAR’s policies regarding a driver’s condition and ability to race. In other words, the focus was off of Earnhardt’s off track performance and on his health. While he was able to return to the track a couple of weeks later at Martinsville, his chances at finishing the season out any higher in the points than 12th had vanished.

Summary: Even when missing two races, Earnhardt’s season was still heads and shoulders above his previous three. He and Steve Letarte continue to develop their relationship and improve their results because of it. Returning to Victory Lane in the way that they did was a testament to that, and perhaps they could have gotten another had the crashes in Kansas and Talladega not happened.

Additionally, his non victory results were impressive as well. Finishing all but five races on the lead lap and suffering zero DNFs. His top 5s and top 10s were up and most believed that his confidence was where it needed to be as well. Though this team has a long way to go before they are considered serious title contenders, they are moving in the right direction.

Off-Track News: Aside from the concussion side of things, Earnhardt has been generating a ton of buzz with his pit road arm candy known as girlfriend Amy Reimann. While the couple hasn’t “put a ring on it”, many credit Amy for Earnhardt’s newfound focus.

2013 Outlook: Momentum was lacking due to Earnhardt’s mid-Chase hiatus, but this team has been improving season after season. As such, who is to say that 2013 will be any different? All four Hendrick Motorsports cars making the Chase was a big deal, but as usual only Jimmie Johnson had anything to say about the championship. In order to keep on keepin’ on, Earnhardt and Letarte need to keep up the good communication not only with each other but with the others in the organization. That might sound obvious to say. Yet for a time, Earnhardt’s communication with the team as a whole seemed to need some improvement. Now, the team appears to be comfortable with each other and who knows? Maybe that could turn into a championship contending team next season.

2011 Frontstretch.com Grade: B-. *2012 Grade: A-. Earnhardt’s trip to victory lane bumped him up a letter grade this season, but this team still has some work to do. No one seriously considers them a threat for the championship yet and only at some tracks are they considered pre-race contenders for the victory. Still, the fact that they were a part of the conversation at all is what was so different about this year than the last three. As long as this team continues this upward climb, they could be in the “A+” range in no time.

Little Known Junior Fact: Even though he missed two races, Earnhardt still had more top-10 finishes than either teammates Kasey Kahne or Jeff Gordon.

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