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Side By Side: Will Junior Retire As A Champion Or An Also-Ran?

Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!

This Week’s Question:Will Dale Earnhardt, Jr. win a Sprint Cup championship before he retires?

Kevin Rutherford, Senior Writer: Earnhardt, Jr. Will Win the Ultimate Prize

OK, I get it. Despite being NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for a decade and having one of the most famous last names in all of auto racing, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t exactly lived up to the throngs of cheers he’s received on race day. He’s never finished higher than third in the overall Cup standings, and has won only four times since 2005.

You’re wanting to tell me that means he’ll never win a championship? Ever? Nah. Not having it.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not going to sit here and say that he’s 100 percent, beyond a shadow of a doubt, going to win a title. I will, however, maintain that the potential is there, and that counting him out completely just isn’t necessary.

Is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blazing a championship trail of his own…

Just three weeks ago, Junior left California as the points leader, having amassed a formidable three top 5s and five top 10s in the first five races of the season. He’s followed up those results with not-so-wonderful finishes of 24th and 29th, but two races does not a season make. He’s still sixth in points, 35 behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Unless these unlucky results continue, he’s certainly a favorite to land in the Chase.

In 2012, Earnhardt, Jr. made the postseason and also won his first race since 2008, at Michigan in June. A crash during a test session at Kansas, in late August left him with a concussion, though he continued to compete until an accident at Talladega finally forced him out of the car for two weeks. By then, his results had suffered from the effects of his head injury. But before the Kansas wreck, he sat third in points, only 15 out of first.

The progress the driver of the No. 88 has shown since a fairly dismal 2009 and 2010 leaves the impression that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t down for the count just yet. He may not be the driver he was in the late ’90s and early ’00s, now pressing 40 years old, but forgive me for not completely counting out a driver who was a legitimate challenger last year and is tied for the second-most top-10 finishes in the series.

The real question is whether or not this driver can keep success within his grasp late in the season. Junior was certainly competing at a championship caliber up until about two-thirds into 2012, prior to his crashes. Even though his last two races this season have left much to be desired, his stats are still better now than they were at this point in the season last year.

What Earnhardt really needs is to go on the tear he experienced between Kansas and Michigan last season — eight races, three top 5s and seven top 10s, culminating in his Michigan triumph. As evidenced by the prowess of teammate Johnson so far, Hendrick Motorsports is firing on all cylinders, so there’s no reason to believe Earnhardt will falter because of overall team issues like he might if he were at, say, Richard Childress Racing right now.

He’s also known for having less-than-stellar showings in the Chase in recent years, when he even makes it in at all. That’s a warning flag, for sure, but past statistics don’t always mean very much — look at Brad Keselowski, circa 2012. It’s not exactly a major stretch to imagine Junior stringing together some better finishes, especially if he’s on a fairly good clip like he was last season before his injury.

If Earnhardt’s going to win a championship at all, it’s probably going to happen sometime in the next 10 years; I don’t expect him to remain competitive in the way his dad did at an older age. While he’s still a part of Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the sport’s best, he has the tools at his disposal to win not just one, but multiple championships.

To do so, the key is to keep up the pace he started in the first two-thirds of 2012 and in the first five races of 2013. If Earnhardt’s in contention to the very end, as a result, there’s really no reason he can’t pull one out, especially if he has a few great days compared to some bad days for others. I know the late 2000s were rough, but I’m just not ready to count the guy out just yet.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Earnhardt Will Retire Empty-Handed

Poor Dale Earnhardt, Jr.! He’s got all that opportunity, yet so few accolades to show for it. He has the famous name, the financially-stable background that often comes with such a famous moniker, and he’s a darling within the media-soaked world of NASCAR Nation. Why, then, has he yet to add a Sprint Cup championship to his career statistics? That’s a good question — one with an easy answer.

The answer to the “Why no Cup title for Junior?” question is this: it’s because a man named Mike Helton stepped up to a microphone on a Sunday evening at Daytona in 2001 and made the following statement: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

At that moment (7:00 p.m. Eastern time on February 18, 2001; most race fans can probably tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news) any legitimate chance Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ever had of winning a Sprint Cup championship was swept under a tidal wave of newfound stress. This level of pressure, brought on by the expectations of (dare I say) millions of heartbroken Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fans, would affect the third-generation driver’s shot at ever taking home the big prize.

…or were his Cup hopes dashed the moment he lost his hero, mentor, car owner and father, forever altering his path in NASCAR?

We’ve seen this movie before. Consider the record of Kyle Petty, another third-generation driver who had NASCAR success by the tail only to squander his shot at championships by trying his hand at a country music singing career. Too many expectations, too soon can result in a loss of professional momentum.

Junior’s Sprint Cup title hopes pretty much vanished after his father’s Chevrolet nosed into the retaining wall at Daytona on the final lap of the 500 in 2001; the young up-and-comer ascending the Cup ladder under his dad’s tutelage was, all of a sudden, the only Earnhardt competing regularly in NASCAR. As legions of grieving Dale Sr. fans faced a future without their beloved seven-time champion, their eyes (and loyalties) turned to Dale Jr. The hope was that Junior would show them the way.

What Junior wound up showing NASCAR Nation, instead was the tribulation of a young man torn by the pressure to win (and to win a lot) plus his need to … well, to be a young man.

Instead of grooming his competitive skills into those of a consistent contender, Junior appeared in music videos with Sheryl Crow and provided the voice for a character in an animated film. His often-rocky relationship with stepmother Teresa became gossip column fodder, leading the heir to the Earnhardt dynasty to take a ride with Hendrick Motorsports and leave his legacy behind.

Unfortunately, by the time Dale Jr. took the wheel of a Hendrick car in 2008, the Jimmie Johnson juggernaut was at full speed; any kind of momentum Junior had accumulated during his Cup career was overrun by the five straight championships collected by the No. 48 team, now his own teammates. Dale Jr. soon found himself sitting on stage during the annual media tour alongside four-time titlist Jeff Gordon and soon-to-be “Five-Time” himself.

Both Earnhardt and Hendrick have admitted to needing each other’s friendship during difficult times (Dale, Jr. following his father’s death in 2001, and Rick following the death of his son, Ricky, in 2004) but their professional alliance has done little over the years but prove frustrating for Junior Nation. Following his four-year winless streak (which ended last summer after 143 races) was akin to watching an ongoing hostage crisis. Toss in a couple of significant head injuries, plus a whole lot of bad racing luck, and that equals Junior’s championship hopes fading fast.

How bad have things gotten for Dale Jr.? Last month, following the Cup event in California, he was atop the Sprint Cup points for the first time since the summer of 2012. As I write this column today, just three weeks after the race at Fontana, Junior and his No. 88 Chevrolet sit sixth in the points. Battery woes at Texas dropped Dale, Jr. from a solid top-five run back to 27th-place finish. Woe is Junior…

The moral to this story is that Junior lost several key seasons between 2001 and 2012 where he could have established himself as a more-consistently relevant force for Sprint Cup championships. Those key years — before the concussions, the successful teammates, and the waning sponsorships — held the promise of multiple titles and a legacy perhaps rivaling that of his legendary father.

Oh, what might have been.

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