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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Proved Me Wrong

Posted by chadmusselman on November 21, 2011

Back in January of this year I asked the question, “Will 2011 be Dale Earnhardt Jr’s year?”  I emphatically said “No”, and that Earnhardt has already peaked and should hope the rest of his career doesn’t end up like Kyle Petty’s.  I also said the changes Hendrick was putting in place to get Earnhardt back into the chase would hurt the rest of the team.  Boy was I wrong about Earnhardt.

The 2011 season has easily been the best for Earnhardt since 2008.  He showed that he can still run with the elite drivers, staying in the top ten in points almost all season and making the chase.  Sure, he didn’t make much noise in the chase, but that’s not the point.  The point is that he made it and finished 7th in points, by far better than I ever thought.  Earnhardt didn’t get that elusive win, but he did finish in the top five 4 times and in the top ten 12 times.  That’s the most since the 2008 season.  His 14.6 place average finish in 2011 is also his best since the 2008 season.

To add to the success on the track for Earnhardt, he signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2017 season.  Rick Hendrick was talking about the contract extension at the beginning of the season, at which time I said he should be looking to let the current contract expire and dump Earnhardt.  Well, if this season is any indicator of what’s to come, Rick Hendrick once again made the right decision by finalizing Jr’s contract in early September.

One member of the Hendrick stable that could have been negatively affected by the changes that Hendrick instituted was Mark Martin.  In the pit crew and team shuffle, Earnhardt got Jeff Gordon’s 2010 team, Jeff Gordon got Mark Martin’s 2010 team, and Mark Martin got Earnhardt’s 2010 team.  Mark Martin easily had one of his worst seasons in recent years.  Martin finished 22nd in points (worst since 2008), has only 2 top five and 10 top ten finishes.  You would have to go back to the mid to late 1980’s to find a season that Mark Martin had fewer top five and top ten finishes.  His 18.2 place average finish was his worst since 2003.  Not a good season for Martin no matter how you look at it.

Maybe this helps answer part of the question, is it the driver, the car, or the pit crew that wins championships?  This shows that Earnhardt was probably working with an inferior team for a couple years before getting Jeff Gordon’s old team.  Mark Martin may be getting older, but he’s still a quality driver and the drop-off from 2010 to 2011 was significant.  I guess we know who Rick Hendrick can let go at the end of the season.  I wouldn’t want Kasey Kahne to inherit a team with that bad of a record.

Earnhardt has to be very happy about 2011, looking forward to making more strides in 2012 and getting his first win since the 2008 season.  Dale, I promise you one thing; I won’t write anything stating 2012 will be a bad season for you and that you’re washed up.  You definitely proved this year that you don’t have to get by on your popularity and you are a true contender for the championship.

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