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 Nos. 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 12 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, N.C. native. The sixth-place finish for Junior at the half-mile paperclip 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 13th, 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, Gordon and 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 10 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.
Something Junior certainly shares with the Batesville, Ark. 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 – Martin piloted the No. 5 Chevy, securing JRM’s 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.
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