Who saw this coming?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself said he was at the end of his rope as his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with Hendrick Motorsports came to a close in 2009. He finished 25th in points. He didn’t win a race. Were his best days behind him?
Many thought so. They were all wrong.
In a performance we’ve almost come to expect from the 2014 version of Dale Earnhardt Jr., he drove a flawless race Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
He didn’t put a wheel wrong, he capitalized on Brad Keselowski’s overheating engine, passed him with four laps to go and grabbed another trophy.
His win in the Pocono 400 was the second of the year for the 39-year-old Earnhardt, whose career arc is as uncommon as the charismatic personality he permeates crowds whenever he’s not racing.
He had 16 wins in his first seven full seasons in Sprint Cup. He had two in the next seven.
Earnhardt, however, has made running up front look so easy, it’s hard to consider he was toiling toward the rear of the field less than five years ago. Everyone, even Earnhardt, questioned if he could turn things around. You’re supposed to start tailing off once you near 40.
Not Earnhardt. He’s had a rebirth of sorts.
Really, who saw it coming, though?
Team owner Rick Hendrick’s decision to name Steve Letarte as Earnhardt’s crew chief in late 2010 is a big reason for Earnhardt’s turnaround.
Letarte is supreme at setting up a car. He’s great with strategy. He’s become one of Earnhardt’s best friends. He’s his confidante. He’s also leaving for the broadcasting booth after this year.
Talk about taking advantage of opportunity.
Earnhardt won his second Daytona 500 in February, sending Letarte out a winner in his final go-around at The Great American Race.
The No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS is a fixture in the top five most weeks. Give some of the credit to Letarte and some to Hendrick, but most of it should go to Earnhardt.
I’m not sure if he’s forgotten about his struggles early in his Hendrick tenure, but it doesn’t matter anymore.
Earnhardt is elite again. He’s confident in himself and his team. When Earnhardt is confident, look out.
He won six races in 2004 when he was on Cloud Eight – we’ll call it Cloud Eighty-Eight if he wins a title – in part due to his considerable confidence.
It’s back. So is the performance on the track.
“We’ve been pretty good all year,” Earnhardt told me late last month. “We’ve had good speed all year.”
People like to compare Earnhardt’s resurgence to Bill Elliott’s in the early 2000s. There are some similarities. Both ended long losing streaks and won big races. Both were at their best when the races were fastest.
Bobby Allison, if you’ll recall, won his first and only championship when he was 45. There’s still time for Earnhardt to get his. It’s the only crown jewel he still needs in a career including 21 wins, two Daytona 500s, two Nationwide Series titles and enough Most Popular driver trophies to fill a garage stall.
He’s also got two wins and seven top-fives this season, more than any other driver.
All that’s left now is to win the elusive Sprint Cup title.
He’s closer than he’s ever been.