Dale Jr. + Hendrick Motorsports = Victory

February 10, 2008 |

He’s been called overrated, overdue, overstated and overblown. But, it’s hard to argue with Dale Earnhardt Jr’s record of success at Daytona International Speedway.

Since breaking into NASCAR’S elite division, in 2000, “Junior’s” resume at Daytona is unrivaled. Saturday night was no exception. After nearly two years outside victory lane, Earnhardt found his way back ….. in the Budweiser Shootout.

This is a familiar haunt for Earnhardt. He’s won 11 races at the very track responsible for claiming his father’s life, in 2001. You name the Daytona race ….. he’s won it. Trophies for the Budweiser Shootout, Pepsi 400, Busch Grand National contests ….. and the Daytona 500 line Earnhardt’s mantle.

Saturday’s victory also marked Earnhardt’s debut as a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Teaming with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in the cause of one racing organization proved fruitful ….. last night. On the aerodynamic driven banks of Daytona, Earnhardt enjoyed the drafting support of the former champions, on the final laps.

This is restrictor plate racing – and Earnhardt is arguably the most talented in the business at this particular form. Perhaps, Tony Stewart put it best, in saying “Dale Jr. is one of the best there’s ever been in restrictor-plate racing.” “I’m not sure he’s not better than his dad now, in all honesty.”

The good news is there are a couple more restrictor plate races over the next week. Then, NASCAR will return to the normal carburetion/air intake races for an extended stretch of time. Perhaps, when the teams depart Daytona, Earnhardt’s true test of talent will be wagered.

He’s the leading ambassador of the sport and one of the most recognizable pitchmen on TV commercials. Along with Peyton Manning, Earnhardt seems to jump out of our plasmas several times a day. He’s undoubtedly the most popular racecar driver in the world.

And, don’t be fooled ….. NASCAR needs him. Over the past couple years, NASCAR has endured a dip in ratings and overall popularity. It’s no coincidence the sport’s misfortunes have coincided with Earnhardt’s own personal slump. Prior to last night, he hadn’t won a race, since May ….. 2006.

Still, Earnhardt remains atop the world of celebrity ….. and sports stars. His popularity is unquestioned, but it doesn’t appear to fulfill him. It’s 2008, and he’s making a fresh start with a new team ….. and new allies. Was it a gamble? Absolutely. He’s joined the premier team in NASCAR ….. knowing he’s NOT the best driver in their stable. He’s not even their 2nd best …..

But, Earnhardt wants to win – he’s made that quite clear. He wants the distinction of a championship ….. or championship(S), to justify and mandate his legacy in the sport. He’ll certainly have the opportunity at Hendrick. But, he’ll have teammates performing at the “very top” of the game, every week, as well.

It was good to see Earnhardt enjoying his victory Saturday night. Several visits to victory lane – in 2008 – isn’t out of the question. He really looks focused and primed to live up to the very name his dad made famous.

We’re about to find out if he can do it …..

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