NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2011 Ride: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2011 Primary Sponsors: AMP Energy, National Guard
2011 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2011 Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 4 top fives, 12 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 1 pole, seventh in points

High Point: While some people might think the bright spot of Earnhardt’s season was coming out of turn 4 at Charlotte with the lead in the Coca-Cola 600 before running out of gas and losing the race to Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt’s true best moment of the season again involved Harvick, but it was in the spring race at Martinsville.

His near win at Charlotte was a strategy play. Earnhardt was leading at Martinsville very late in the race and had a very real chance to win the event. While he chose not to get overly aggressive with Harvick and forcibly move him from the lead when he had the chance, the fact that Earnhardt raced his way into contention to win the event did wonders for his confidence and that of his legion of fans.

Low Point: Talladega, Ala. might be some 375 miles from Kannapolis, N.C., but there is no question that it is Earnhardt country. After pushing Jimmie Johnson to the win in the spring race at Talladega, everyone in Earnhardt Nation was confident that the fall race would see his horrendous winless streak finally come to an end. A consensus team decision to ride at the back of the pack and make a late-race charge, combined with late-race cautions resulted in Earnhardt being unable to move to the front over the last few laps and being relegated to a 25th-place finish, effectively dealing a death blow to what slim title hopes he had.

Summary: While 2011 was once again a winless season for Earnhardt, there were more signs that things are starting to look better and he might finally be feeling a little more comfortable in the new car design. Earnhardt only scored four top-five runs in 2011, but they included two runner-up finishes and a third. While Earnhardt hasn’t had the string of top-five finishes necessary to be a champion yet, when he’s on, he is very strong.

For the first time in years, Earnhardt has seemed to not only be comfortable but confident in the ability of his cars. Unlike previous years, the No. 88 team seemed to have far more races where they were getting better at the finish versus falling off. While we won’t know for sure until we see the results in 2012, there is certainly more reason for optimism than in years past.

Team Ranking: Despite completing his third full year without a win, Earnhardt was once again one of the best performing drivers at Hendrick, finishing second highest of the four drivers competing for HMS this season.

Off-Track News: Nothing can be more distracting than a contract expiration hanging over a driver’s head. Earnhardt does not have to worry about that for another five years, though, having signed a contract extension this summer with Hendrick Motorsports that runs through 2017.

2012 Outlook: The coming Sprint Cup season could be a defining season for HMS and Earnhardt Jr. While one of the satellite Hendrick organizations was able to win the title this season, it was not one of the four teams under the actual Hendrick banner. In fact, the organization seemed to struggle mightily during the Chase with Jeff Gordon struggling to just make the top 10 and Johnson spinning out on his own on multiple occasions and finishing outside the top five for the first time in his career.

2012 will either see Hendrick dominate the sport once again as everyone in the company rebounds to reestablish themselves as the number one team in the sport or struggle to win races at all and find speed out of their racecars. With Earnhardt racing his way to the front of the field on multiple occasions it just might finally be time for him to run near the top of the points standings for the first time since a fifth-place run in 2006 or even his third-place run in 2003.

Little Known Junior Fact: In a world of Sprint Cup double-dipping, Earnhardt Jr. has still never run a Truck race.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: D
2008 Grade: C+
2009 Grade: D
2010 Grade: D+
2011 Grade: B-

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