Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already proven that he can win. He's proven that he can be a NASCAR champion. But why hasn't he done either where it matters most?
As it stands, Junior is one of the most talented drivers of our time. Sure, he isn't a Kyle Busch or a Jimmie Johnson, but with 19 wins in the Sprint Cup Series, a best points finish of third in 2003, 23 Nationwide Series wins and two Nationwide championships (1998, 1999), he's definitely familiar with success.
Yet he has not finished any better than seventh in points (2011) in the past six years. In 2007, his last year with Dale Earnhardt Inc., he finished a disgraceful 16th in points. Everything looked like it was going to go well in 2008 when he joined Hendrick Motorsports. He won the Budweiser Shootout in February and he won at Michigan in June, but the wheels fell off during his Chase run, and he faded back to finish 12th in points.
2009 and 2010 were both dismal years, and while things looked to turn around in 2011, he didn't win a race again until June 2012, once again at Michigan. But by then, many fans had given up on there ever being another Earnhardt championship.
The thing is, he could be considered both an underachiever and a victim of unfair circumstances.
Of all of the drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, no driver has been under the amount of pressure that Junior has. Contrary to what we may see or hear, Junior has the weight of the sport on his back. He is responsible for his name, both business-wise and family-wise. He has an image that he needs to keep. He has expectations from his sponsors that need to be fulfilled as well as expectations from his boss.
Then there are the expectations from his fans. Ever since his father died, Junior has been expected to dominate much in the manner that his teammate Johnson has. Yet with the results he has shown in the past, a lot of disappointment has made the rounds.
But there are also distractions that cross Junior's mind. He's a brilliant businessman and spokesperson, for one. He's also a successful Nationwide team owner, and his cars have won dozens of Nationwide races. So there is that to think about. Junior wants to succeed in all things, not just racing. Who could blame him?
But the ultimate way to assure that he succeeds is through racing and winning. Therein lies another problem: his aggression level.
He's not an aggressive guy. He's a very levelheaded individual. He's been upset at other drivers before, such as Robby Gordon, Casey Mears and Greg Biffle. But aside from that, he just doesn't seem to take the chances guys like Jimmie Johnson are known to take. He's waited too long to make race-winning moves; he's stayed out when he needed to pit, pitted when he needed to stay out—he's just not driven. He's got the drive to succeed, but he's not driven to take the chances needed.
He's too content to run second, like in the 2010, 2012 and 2013 Daytona 500s. He's too content to push others to the win, like in the 2011 Aaron's 499 at Talladega. His calm, cool demeanor is what ultimately hurts him as a driver. There is where he may be deemed an underachiever.
Ultimately, as previously stated, he hasn't lived up to expectations. He's a great driver who will win again, and I'm among the throngs who get a kick out of Junior visiting Victory Lane. But I don't see him winning a title any time soon. As far as I'm concerned, he's collapsed as a contending driver.
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