After talking about the big stories and ranking our Top 10 drivers from the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, my colleague Tony DiZinno and I are now going to start taking a look back on how each of the 13 Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders fared this past year.
Now comes our fifth-place driver in the championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr…
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2013 Stats: Fifth Place, No Wins, 10 Top-5s, 22 Top-10s, 342 Laps Led
Average Start: 13.9
Average Finish: 12.6
Estrada Says: Earnhardt would’ve preferred something else besides a goose-egg in the win column, but with five runner-up finishes (three of which came in the Chase), it’s definitely not like he wasn’t trying. All in all, he made a nice jump in performance and had the best year in his current tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. His 10 Top-5s equaled his output from 2012 and his 22 Top-10 finishes marked a career-best total there. And you have to remember how good he was in the post-season following his blown engine at Chicagoland. Getting regular season victories will be critical in battling the likes of Johnson and Kenseth next fall, but Earnhardt can be proud of his effort this year.
DiZinno Says: At this point in his career, Junior essentially “is what he is.” Seasons like 2001, where he won three races or 2004, when he won a career-high six, are long gone and exceptions rather than the norm. It’s taken two years for the No. 88 team to turn its consistency around and while that is something to appreciate, it’s still not good enough to satisfy the legion of “Junior nation” desperate for that elusive first championship (although, it is still good to net Most Popular Driver awards…). The good news is you know what you’ll get from him, and it will usually end up in the top 10; the bad news is that it’s just not as good as Jimmie Johnson. Several races where Johnson just flat beat him – second at both the Daytona 500 and Dover – were as much of psychological beatdowns as on-track defeats. Junior needs a spark to raise the team to a level of his Hendrick Motorsports’ teammates, otherwise he’ll continue in this mold for the rest of his career.