His other wins for the powerhouse team are a Gatorade Duel, a Bud Shootout and then the Showdown last week. He needed that Showdown win to get him in to the All-Star Race without the help of the fan vote, of which he was virtually assured. After making the All-Star Race, he won a segment.
He's also won the Most Popular Driver award for nine consecutive seasons. It's obvious Junior Nation will stand by their man, win or lose.
Let's give credit where credit is due: he's the strongest at HMS right now. Earnhardt Jr. boasts nine top 10s in the first 12 races of the season. He's never fallen out of the top 5 in points, reaching as high as second and currently sitting in fourth, 18 points behind leader Greg Biffle.
This has been Earnhardt Jr.'s best season to date as a Hendrick driver. He is leading the team in points, but the question is, how long will that last?
We should all know by now, making it to the top is hard. But holding on to the top is even harder. Earnhardt Jr. is about to face some difficult tracks in the upcoming summer stretch of races, such as the road courses. The Sprint Cup Series prepares to head to Dover and Pocono, tracks not among Earnhardt's best. In 2008, his first year with Hendrick, he had very similar stats; in fact, he had one more top five by this point in that season, yet he wound up 12th in points.
Sure, the remaining Hendrick drivers have had a rough start to the season. Jeff Gordon's luck hasn't been this bad since the start of his career 20 years ago. Jimmie Johnson was under the microscope the first few weeks of the season because of the C-posts conflict in Daytona, and Kasey Kahne struggled with poor finishes at the start of his first season with Hendrick.
Kahne finally won a race: in his 300th start, he won his third Coca-Cola 600. It took 12 starts with Hendrick to get that win, but he also made major improvements in a short amount of time. In six weeks, he went from 32nd in points to 15th. In his meek start to the season, he's won two poles. He's progressed while being under the spotlight, facing an immense amount of pressure from media and his naysayers.
Last Tuesday, Kahne and his boss, Rick Hendrick, attended the Hendrickcars.com grand opening ribbon cutting ceremony.Hendrick joked with Kahne and asked him if he was going to win the Coca-Cola 600. Kahne said he hoped so. But that wasn't good enough. Hendrick wanted him to come right out and say it.
|Kasey Kahne with his PR representative before |
winning Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
Photo credit: Genevieve
It's not Kahne's style to talk the talk. "Yeah, I don't say too much. I'd rather just try to perform when it's time."
Sure, they were joking around. Merely saying something like you will win does not guarantee the win. But it sure is fun to be a little superstitious.
All sports fans are superstitious, so, the question really is, should we have Dale Earnhardt Jr. come right out and say, in "Jerry McGuire" style, "I am going to win (Dover)!"
Would prodding a guarantee work on Dale Jr.? Should Hendrick put the driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet under the same pressure he put Kahne? Or would doing so be a bad idea?
What did Hendrick have to say about that tactic? "When I was kidding with Kasey at the grand opening, I mean, I've never demanded anybody to win a race because it doesn't work that way."
True, it doesn't work that way, but Hendrick also stated, "I'm a big Churchill fan. His comments were, 'Sometimes your best isn't good enough, you have to do what's required.'"
Earnhardt Jr. is doing his best; he always does. He doesn't lose because he wants to, and he knows his fans are still supportive of him and are all waiting for the win. But unfortunately, his best hasn't been enough to win a race.
Hendrick also said, "I had a coach pull that on Chad [Knaus] one day. Chad got up and said he was going to try to win the championship. The coach said, from Appalachian, 'Sometimes your best isn't good enough.'"
They'll joke around with that statement loosely. "We kind of kid around with that. We were having a good time at the grand opening. I did have a gut feeling about how I've seen him win over here, late at night in the All-Star Race, finding that groove, and listening to Kenny tonight make the adjustments. He wasn't afraid when he's running first to make another adjustment, kept getting the car better and better and better." said Hendrick.
Hendrick then looked at Kahne and said, with laughter, "Now you got to win Dover."
Kahne replied, "OK."
How about telling Earnhardt Jr. he has to win Dover? We all praise Earnhardt Jr. for trying hard, and we're all patient with waiting for him to win. What does Hendrick say about putting Earnhardt Jr. under the same pressure he put Kahne under?
"Dale is doing a great job. He's running in the top 10 every week. He might have a couple times he slips out. But he's in position to take advantage of an adjustment here or there, a break here or there, he's going to win a race. He's up in the top of the points. Been a huge improvement, he and Stevie, just getting better. I think the win will come," Hendrick said.
"But it's hard. You got a lot of great guys out there that haven't won races this year that are champions. Dale is just under more of a microscope. But I'd say, look at the way he's finishing, the way he's running, and compare it to what we've been doing. You have to get to the place we are now before you win races. So I think he's right there."
It's great to start the season off strong, but it's even better to finish the season strong. Will Dale Jr. do it in the end?
On a personal note:
As you just read, the story idea was to discuss having Dale Jr. say out loud "I will win the next race," just like Kahne said. In the victory press conference I posed the question to Rick Hendrick with the intent of getting his input on how well that tactic would work. The question didn't come out exactly the way I meant it. I never intended to offend anyone.
For the record I believe Junior has the potential to win more than one race a season. I also believe he has the talent to win a championship. I just seriously question when that's going to happen and what it's going to take to get him there.
Genevieve is a writer with a day job in childcare. She has a degree in paralegal studies and she minored in mass communications. When not writing about NASCAR, she explores other writing projects. Gen's hobbies include exercising, swimming and spending time with friends near her home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
You can follow her on Twitter at @C_Genevieve.
You can follow her on Twitter at @C_Genevieve.