5 Questions (and answers) heading into the 2012 NASCAR season, Part 4

Thanks to a special guest, 4thandDone is preparing you for another season of racing. Today, we present question four of our five intriguing questions (with answers!) to help guide expectations for the 2012 NASCAR season.

[Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, and hopefully throughout the NASCAR season, my cousin, Wayne, will be bringing racing insight to ignorant dopes such as myself. Enjoy.]

If you missed how Tony Stewart’s 2011 success could impact his 2012 campaign or whether or not this is the year Carl Edwards finally breaks through, or whether Jimmie Johnson will bounce back, check them out.

4.  Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win in 2012?

129 races.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not won since his visit to Michigan International Speedway in June of 2008.  One hundred and twenty-nine times he has climbed into his car dreaming of Victory Lane only to come up short.  0 for 129.

To make matters worse, that one win came 76 races after his previous win.  So make that 1 for 205.  A winning percentage of .4% in the last 5 years.  Pundits thought it was because of the sub-par equipment Theresa Earnhardt was putting out on the track, and Dale Jr. must have agreed, signing with Rick Hendrick in 2007.  We’ve talked about how deep his pockets are and how good his equipment is, so naturally everyone thought Dale Jr. would return to his winning ways (he won 15 races in his first 5 years).  But as Coach Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast.”  Yes, that one win came as a member of Hendrick Motorsports, but where is the driver that everyone used to fear at Daytona and Talladega?  What happened to the guy who believed he could win each week?

You may ask why this is such a big deal.  I’ll give you one guess at who dominates the voting for the Most Popular Driver award every year.  As Dale Jr. goes, so does the popularity of NASCAR.  He’s like the leadoff hitter of a baseball team (glad to have you back, Jimmy).  If he’s getting on base and scoring runs, the team has a much better chance of winning.  Likewise, if the sport’s biggest star is winning and getting face time on ESPN, the sport will inherently grow.  If not, can NASCAR count on the average fan sticking around and taking the time to pick a different driver who wins more often?  The chances are slim.  Granted, we’re in tough economic times, but I’m betting that quite a few of those empty seats seen at races nowadays used to be filled by Dale Jr. fans who have grown tired of spending half of a paycheck to watch him finish 18th (his average finish over the last 3 years).

Is this evidence of a man crumbling beneath massive expectations?  Or, is Dale Jr. too busy focusing on other parts of life?  Or, is a win right around the corner?  We’ll find out a lot about this team during Speedweeks at Daytona.  He and crew chief Steve Letarte appear to have a good chemistry reminiscent of his relationship with Tony Eury Jr. at DEI.

The 2011 season seemed to be a step in the right direction as Dale Jr. posted 4 top-fives and 12 top-tens en route to a 7th place finish in the points.  Taking all of that into consideration, I believe the winless streak will indeed be snapped in 2012. Who knows?  With Dale’s return to prominence, maybe we’ll start seeing the crowds come back to fill the grandstands each week.

NASCAR certainly hopes so.

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