Junior championship no longer pie in the sky
August 04, 2014, Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live | Sign up for RaceView today
When team owner Rick Hendrick introduced Dale Earnhardt Jr. in June 2007 as the latest addition to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster at Hendrick Motorsports, he said all the right things.
Hendrick asserted he wanted to help Earnhardt achieve what the legions of fans who comprise Earnhardt Nation crave most -- Earnhardt in Victory Lane on a regular basis and ultimately holding the Sprint Cup trophy.
"I can't tell you how thrilled I am and how much pressure I feel," Hendrick said at the time. "He's such an icon. There's pressure because I want to deliver, and there's going to be a lot of people watching."
Indeed. People watched. And for the better part of six years, they waited.
Driving the No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt won the Sprint Unlimited non-points exhibition race in his maiden voyage for Hendrick in February 2008. That victory only served to heighten expectations.
But Earnhardt's only other win that year came in a fuel-mileage race at Michigan. In contrast, the driver Earnhardt replaced, a highly motivated Kyle Busch, won eight of the first 22 races in 2008 for new boss Joe Gibbs.
If 2008 was a lean year for Earnhardt, 2009 and 2010 were unmitigated disasters. The No. 88 team produced five top-fives in those two winless seasons combined and finished 25th and 21st in the final standings, respectively.
A crew chief change in June 2009, from Earnhardt's cousin Tony Eury Jr. to Lance McGrew, didn't help.
The disappointment of 2010 brought another change, as Hendrick made wholesale changes to his driver/crew chief lineup for 2011, pairing Earnhardt with Steve Letarte. Though Earnhardt remained winless in 2011, his fortunes improved.
Earnhardt qualified for the Chase and finished seventh in the final standings, collecting a dozen top 10s along the way.
Nevertheless, the idea that Earnhardt would win regularly and contend for a championship still seemed more wishful thinking than realistic expectation.
After winning Sunday's GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt said he wouldn't have been surprised if Hendrick had replaced him during the lean years.
"We went through struggles, and he had every right in the world to replace me with another driver, and nobody would have said a thing about it," Earnhardt said. "Because we weren't running good enough, and it would have made perfect sense to everybody if he would have went that route."
Well, not exactly. Hendrick doubtless knew that the quickest way to become NASCAR's most unpopular owner would be to fire the sport's perennial most popular driver. In fact, in 2011, Earnhardt signed an extension that will keep him in the No. 88 Chevy through 2017.
With Letarte on the pit box, Earnhardt slowly began to accomplish what he and Hendrick envisioned together in 2007. In 2012, Earnhardt and Letarte won their first race together, at Michigan. And though they didn't get to the winner's circle in 2013, Earnhardt's performance made a quantum leap.
After an engine failure in the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway effectively knocking Earnhardt out of the title picture, he rattled off eight top 10s in the next nine races, finishing the season 2-4-3 at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
That was merely a prelude to 2014, Earnhardt's first multiple-win season in a decade. With a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a sweep of the Pocono races, Earnhardt is locked and loaded for the Chase.
The peak performance is there, and so is the consistency, making Earnhardt one of the strong favorites to win the championship this year.
Make no mistake, Earnhardt has always been a favorite. This year, however, he's more than just a sentimental one -- much more.