Call Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s surge to second place in Sunday’s Daytona 500 a case of just being lucky. Go ahead and talk about how he was a non-factor for much of the race, only to hit a new gear after a late stop for tires that gave him an advantage on those with older rubber. While you’re at it, mention that Junior wouldn’t have finished nearly as well without NASCAR’s new rule that allows for multiple attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.
Feel better now? Good. Because you’re probably going to be talking about Earnhardt Jr. a lot more in 2010.
Sunday’s race proved that contrary to popular opinion, NASCAR’s most popular driver still has the goods to get it done, especially at Daytona and Talladega – a couple of restrictor-plate tracks that were Earnhardt Jr.’s bread and butter in his first four or five years in the Cup series.
And if you saw him weaving in and out of traffic and bump-drafting his way from 10th to second in the final two laps, the Daytona 500 also proved that Junior is capable of excelling under immense pressure – something he’s been less than stellar at throughout portions of his career.
Despite a miserable 2009 and subpar 2008 with the powerful Hendrick Motorsports outfit, Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t forgotten how to drive racecars any more than Michael Jordan has forgotten how to play basketball or Garth Brooks has forgotten how to sing. Junior is the same guy who won two points races and the All-Star Race as a Cup rookie, and who triumphed three times in 2001 after losing his father in a crash on the final lap of that season’s Daytona 500. He’s also the driver who has won two Busch Series championships, 18 Cup races and who was a legitimate title contender in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
To declare, as some observers have, that Junior’s best days are behind him at the ripe old age of 35 is just naïve and silly. Sure, you can’t overlook his struggles the last two years with NASCAR’s premier organization. But you also can’t forget that Earnhardt Jr. probably feels more pressure to perform than the rest of his competitors combined. Aside from the expectations that come with being the son of arguably NASCAR’s greatest driver of all time, Earnhardt Jr. didn’t exactly do himself any favors by enjoying such quick success in NASCAR.
If he hadn’t won those Busch titles in 1998 and 1999 and had only won, say, a race or two in his first few Cup seasons, the observers who branded him NASCAR’s next big star might not expect so much. But when Junior burst on the scene and quickly became a contender, it was natural for his fans and everyone else to assume he’d only grow better with time.
That theory, of course, has pretty much been shot to oblivion the last three seasons, which have produced a total of one win, along with two failures to make NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. But this is a new year, and Earnhardt Jr. showed it by wheeling a hardly superb car to a strong outcome in the season’s biggest race.
Unlike the last few seasons when early-race struggles might have doomed Earnhardt Jr.’s day or demoralized his spirits, he didn’t grow overly frustrated or push his car beyond its limits. He remained calm, poised and waited for just the right time to march forward. With another half a lap or so, he might have marched right to his second Daytona 500 victory.
Maybe that would have been enough to convince his detractors he’s still got what it takes.