Can Dale Jr. step up performance in the Chase?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in what is arguably his best season in several years. Currently seventh in points and is all but locked in to the Chase. He has 14 top-10’s and five top-5’s. The question is -Is it good enough?

When Earnhardt made the move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, his massive legion of fans were very excited. The general consensus was that he would now be in the best equipment and will now have the opportunity to showcase his talents.

The excitement was further backed up by his win that season in the qualifying race at Daytona. Jr. Nation was buzzing! It was short lived however. He did manage a win that season and made the Chase. The team struggled in the Chase, however, finishing 12th, last amongst Chase contenders.

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The following season results were dismal.  So bad that, after just 12 races, crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr, was replaced. Brian Whitesell sat atop the pitbox for one race, but the team settled on Lance McGrew to take over the crew chief duties. There was no real improvement. With no wins, only two top-5’s and five top-10’s. Earnhardt finished 25th in the final standings.  Jr. Nation was not happy.

The woes continued in 2010. Results were again dismal. Three top-5’s and eight top-10’s were not the stats the team needed. After finishing 21st in the points, again a change was needed. Enter Steve Letarte.

2011 brought renewed vigor into the team and the Jr. fans. Starting from the pole in the season opening Daytona 500, the fans had something to cheer about. Though the team did not manage to find victory lane, they were able to score 12 top-10 finishes, make the Chase and ended up seventh in the final standings.

2012 brought more success. Earnhardt scored the much needed win at Michigan. He also stayed in the top five in points for most of the season, made the Chase, but tragedy struck at Talladega. A huge crash near the end of the race ended the season early for Earnhardt due to a concussion. A win and 20 top ten finishes were definitely an improvement.

This season Earnhardt has been one of the most consistent drivers, at least early in the season. He was in the top five in standings until Charlotte, where he finished 39th with an engine failure. Through the middle of the season, results have still been solid, but he has been slowly sliding back. Though, he has 14 top-10’s, he has not led a lot of laps and still is yet to find victory lane. Finishes of tenth to fifteenth will keep a driver close in the standings, but it will not win championships.

Earnhardt is probably under more pressure to perform than any other driver in the garage area. Fans and some media are constantly comparing him to his father. His stats pale in comparison to dad, but so do many others.

The reality of the situation is that the entire team has to step up and perform better once the Chase starts. When competing against teams who have four and five wins, tenth place is not good enough. Letarte has without a doubt been a good change for Earnhardt. Additionally, Earnhardt has become more involved with the team from a technical standpoint. He is giving much better feedback now than he did in previous seasons. The pieces are definitely coming together.

To do well in the Chase, the team will have to take more risks and quit playing it safe. In the last several races the performance has been off a little compared to earlier this season and the team has been playing defense trying to stay in the top ten.

Earnhardt continues to sound confident and was quoted earlier this week saying, “I feel like we belong in the Chase, feel like if we can put ten races together – I think we can do it as good as anybody when it comes down to it.” Once they are locked in, it is time to take a chance, try different strategies, and hope that rolling the dice will put them in victory lane. There is no way to beat Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth without winning.

The bar is set high, but that is to be expected. After-all, this is the premier racing division in the country – just average is just not good enough.

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