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NASCAR 2014 Season Preview: Examining Earnhardt and Patrick’s Potential

New playoff system. New qualifying procedure. New attitude. As NASCAR heads towards Daytona in 2014, all around the sport are focused on the positive, looking for the perfect season to recapture a nation currently preoccupied with other sports, along with the Olympics in Sochi.

Can they do it? As Speedweeks dawn, both NASCAR’s Sprint Unlimited and the 56th Daytona 500 usher in a long list of questions along with them, the answers to which could define the sport for not just this year but the next NASCAR television contract. That means it’s time to get the blood pumping and start 2014 analysis, bringing Frontstretch back to your list of daily internet favorites. This week, we’ll get you thinking each day on one of five big questions facing stock car racing; as we try and find the answers, staff members you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and a little sense of humor.

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Two of the sport’s most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Danica Patrick, have failed to meet the expectations placed on them. Earnhardt has yet to be a serious title contender, and Patrick hasn’t finished in the top 10 since the Daytona 500 last year. With Junior turning 40 and Patrick entering her second season on the circuit, will either driver turn the tide, or is this year going to be the one either driver defines as the beginning of the end?

Justin Tucker: Sorry Junior Nation, but until Dale, Jr. proves that he can return to the form he showed in 2004 that saw him win six times I don’t see him being a serious championship contender. He has only two wins in 214 career starts driving for Hendrick Motorsports, the best team in all of NASCAR. Junior also faces the added distraction of his crew chief and biggest cheerleader Steve Letarte leaving after the season for NBC. From this point on, Junior will be a solid top 10 driver but a championship? That window is closed.

With that said, I do think we will see a major improvement out of Danica Patrick this season. In 2013, we saw glimpses of what she could really be on NASCAR’s top level. I mean finishing 12th in her first career start at Martinsville is no small potatoes. I think having guys like Stewart, Harvick, and Kurt Busch to lean on is a major bonus for here and having Mark Martin there at SHR as well will pay big dividends this season.

Matt Stallknecht: I think 2014 may very well be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s best shot at a championship. If you look at what he and his team accomplished in the Chase last year, you have to be impressed. Save for a mechanical failure at Chicagoland, the No. 88 team was championship-caliber for the rest of the Chase and posted the second-best average finish among Chasers. Junior himself seems hungrier and more focused than ever, so when you put all of these factors together, I don’t see how anyone can ignore the No. 88 team in a discussion of championship threats.

As for Danica Patrick, I think it is reasonable to expect her to improve at least somewhat over her 2013 performance. We need to keep in mind that Patrick is still sorely lacking in full-bodied stock car experience relative to her Cup Series contemporaries, and as such her learning curve is twice as steep as the average Cup Series newcomer. She is not going to light the world on fire in 2014, but I think that with a full year under her belt, she will at least be able to perform at a respectable level, perhaps somewhere in the 15th-25th range instead of the 25th-35th range that she grew accustomed to in 2013. Her ceiling admittedly isn’t very high, but if she can hit that top 20 number on a fairly consistent basis (which I believe she is capable of provided she continues improving), the heat may slowly start to dissipate around her. Again, she’ll never be a title contender, but she’ll eventually be a fairly dependable, Aric Almirola-type performer if given enough time and space to improve.

Jeff Meyer: What are you talking about?! Dale, Jr. and Danica have infinitely EXCEEDED any expectations placed upon them! In the history of the sport, there has never been two bigger cash cows (ok, one bull and one cow) than Dale, Jr and Danica Patrick! One by name, the other by anatomy! Seriously, while he is good, no one really expected Junior to be as good as his dad, and Danica, well, no one seriously expected her to be good at all. Danica would not even be in NASCAR if she was squat, frumpy and didn’t have a pretty face. Go ahead and call me an ass, I don’t care. The hard truth is, sex sells, everyone knows that! It IS all about making money, right?

Amy Henderson: For both Earnhardt, Jr. and Patrick, it’s more a case of setting expectations too high in the first place. Both are decent drivers, but neither are elite-level talents on par with drivers like Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart, and nobody should expect them to be. Patrick was hyped so much by media that expectations of her were simply ridiculous. Sure, she could win on a plate track or in a fuel-mileage race, as she did for the lone IndyCar win, but she’s not going to have a long list of wins or titles when her career ends. Realistically, she’s more on par with drivers like David Ragan or David Gilliland than the top-flight drivers people seem to want to compare her with—she could win here and there, but she’s not going to suddenly set the world on fire. In fact, Gilliland, in inferior equipment, had a better points finish last year.

Earnhardt does have an outside shot at a title. Remember, if not for a blown engine at Chicago, he’d have been running with teammate Johnson for the championship last year. With crew chief Steve Letarte stepping down, there is something on the table for them to prove, and there’s the possibility that a new crew chief in 2015 will be the key if it doesn’t happen this year. Will it be Ray Evernham? That’s doubtful—Evernham, who returned to the Hendrick fold this year, has repeatedly denied a return to the pit box, and realistically, he may be too far removed from a crew chief position to have the edge he once did. Also, if he does return, look for it to be with Jeff Gordon in a push for a fifth title. So that does leave Earnhardt in a bit of transition. But other teams have used that to their advantage, and he is driving the best he has in years, so anything’s possible.

Kevin Rutherford: The new points system could already lean in Earnhardt’s favor; win a race — oh, just one race! — and he’s in the Chase, and from there it’s all about finishing strong throughout the final 10 races, something the driver of the No. 88 accomplished in 2013 as one of the top-finishing competitors average-wise. He may still never win a championship, but there’s no reason to count him out just yet. As for Patrick? She has one full season in Cup under her belt. Passing judgment on a driver after just one season is a textbook example of jumping the gun. Give her another season and we’ll talk.

Vito Pugliese: I am probably in the minority with those who defend Danica Patrick. If she has failed to meet expectations placed on her, then the expectations were too great to begin with.

Rookie driver in a new car? Check. Team in turmoil? Check. Team owner nearly gets leg lopped off racing garden tractor with a Cup engine? Check. A perfect storm was created last year that helped her languish in mediocrity, along with everybody asking, poking, and prodding, “….what’s wrong with you?” It isn’t like Stewart-Haas Racing had a banner season, outside of Ryan Newman’s stunning dominant victory at the Brickyard 400. Stewart won one in 2013, the result of gambling and not pitting at Dover, squeaking by an equally average Juan Pablo Montoya with three laps to go.

With Newman given entrance into The Chase by papal edict, Crew Chief Steve Addington was on his way out while Mark Martin was subbing for the injured Stewart, I’m guessing there wasn’t a whole lot of attention foisted on the rookie in the No. 10 car. Richard Petty’s comments have begun anew the derision of Danica before the year is even underway. I’ll say this: name any other driver from Indy Car or Formula One driver who has come here and done markedly better than her in their rookie season. Exactly. 2014 will be a defining year for her, and if she can learn how to race these cars and drivers – not drive fast, but race – I think she can finish inside the Top 20.

As far as Junior is concerned, I still think this isn’t the right fit or team for him. He needs to be someplace where it’s clear he’s the top dog and main priority. He was a different driver when he was at DEI, and when Tony Eury, Sr. was his crew chief. Brimming with confidence and personality, he seems to have been dulled since joining Hendrick Motorsports. His performance during The Chase was exemplary (he’d have won the title under the new points system) – except he’s still up against his teammate who’s the best driver statistically to come around since the glory days of Level Cross. Now with Steve Letarte leaving at the end of 2014, what does that do to his psyche and stress level? The best thing he can do is win early so the specter of, “why aren’t you winning, your teammate has almost three times as many titles as wins as you the last eight years…” isn’t hanging over his head.

Phil Allaway: 2014 will not be the beginning of the end of either driver. While Earnhardt Jr. will turn 40 this season and will be in his 15th full season, he still has a lot of great runs in front of him. However, since he hasn’t won a race in a year and a half (and nowhere other than Michigan since 2006), there’s always going to be that group of people that states that Earnhardt Jr. needs to win in the worst way. This is despite Earnhardt Jr. rarely being stronger overall than he’s been for the last year or so.

In Danica’s case, she has to deal with not only ridiculous expectations, but the general opinion that she’s worthless behind the wheel of a race car and only in the sport at all because she’s some kind of marketing machine. If you’re looking for the prototype of what to think about Patrick at this point of her career (46 career Sprint Cup starts), look at Sam Hornish, Jr. Through 46 starts, Hornish had two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 28.6. Improved form in early 2009 allowed Hornish to reach even that level as his rookie year in Cup was much worse than Patrick’s. Patrick has only one top-10 (eighth in last year’s Daytona 500), but has a better average finish at 26.1. I’m operating under the opinion that Patrick’s equipment at Stewart-Haas is about equal to what Hornish had at Penske.

There is quite the learning curve to racing in Sprint Cup, no matter where you come from. Patrick will be quite a bit better than 27th in points this year. Will she win? Doubtful, but with four restrictor plate races on the schedule, you never know. Patrick’s offseason testing has shown some improvement. Ditching the COT probably hurt Patrick during her rookie year (she was just starting to come to grips with it before it was dumped). We’ll see some improvement out of the No. 10. Will it be enough to quiet the detractors? Not until she’s Chase material.

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