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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2006 Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale “4x Most Popular Driver” Earnhardt Jr.
2006 Ride: No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet
2006 Owner: Teresa Earnhardt/Dale Earnhardt Inc.
2006 Crew Chief: Tony Eury Jr.
Stats: 36 races, one win, 10 top fives, 17 top 10s, fifth in points.

High Point: Earnhardt Jr. was able to extend his streak of winning at least one race per season to seven years by taking the checkered flag at the Richmond race in May. That accomplishment shared the spotlight, though, with Junior’s ability to bounce back from a subpar 2005 by qualifying for the Chase for the Championship at the fall Richmond race in September.

Low Point: Without a doubt, Earnhardt’s low point was back-to-back 43rd-place finishes at New Hampshire and Pocono in the middle of the summer, a serious disaster that threatened to keep Junior from making the Chase. With an engine failure followed up by a hard crash at the Pennsylvania Triangle, Junior dropped from third to 11th in points and quickly found himself struggling to keep his head above water. Although the team bounced back, the poor finishes ultimately became detrimental to their seeding in the Chase for the Championship, forcing some rather tense moments for the team at Richmond when bad brakes and a so-so finish nearly wiped their title dreams away. After securing his spot in the playoffs, Earnhardt’s other low point became a self-imposed wreck at Martinsville that all but eliminated his chance at winning the title. Earnhardt took himself out by being impatient trying to pass Kasey Kahne, turning himself around while running in the top 10 with 50 laps to go. Poised for a solid finish, Earnhardt finished 26th instead and cost himself valuable points he could never make up.

Summary: All in all, Earnhardt Jr. had a very successful 2006 season. Although the team won just once, they led a total of 18 races and were contenders to take the checkered flag on more than one occasion. Continuing to run well at short tracks and plate tracks, the team also gained a handle on intermediate tracks, which had been their Achilles’ heel over the past few years. Overcoming that hurdle allowed the Budweiser team to make the Chase for the second time in three seasons and put together a reasonable challenge for the title in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The reunification of Earnhardt with crew chief Eury Jr. was the spark that seemed to rekindle the drive and determination of the entire No. 8 team; if not for unfortunate circumstances at Talladega and spinning himself out in Martinsville, Junior could have very well walked away with this year’s title.

2007 Outlook: Earnhardt Jr. has matured as a driver and a man. He appears to understand the opportunity that has been presented to him, and, at 32, wants to win a championship desperately before his abilities begin to wane. Earnhardt is still NASCAR’s most popular driver, but wants to prove that he deserves that title because of his driving abilities as much as his name and his commercials. With the team’s newfound success on intermediate tracks, all the pieces appear to be in place for Junior to make a serious run at the championship in 2007. Look for big things from the Budweiser team at Daytona and beyond.

Grade: A-