For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s all come down to this:
One or done.
Or to put it in more succinct terms, win or done.
As Junior prepares to head to Talladega in a few days, he’s in perhaps the most desperate time of his 15-year Sprint Cup career.
Tied for last in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, with teammate Jimmie Johnson no less, the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers are on the verge of elimination.
They both have to win at Talladega to advance to the Eliminator Round – but only one can wind up in Victory Lane.
Sure, mathematically, Earnhardt and Johnson still have chances of advancing to the next round after Talladega without a win, but it will take a lot of luck for them and misfortune for the other 12 Chase drivers to see that possibility realized — two distinct things that you simply can’t count on in the unpredictable world of NASCAR.
Junior has enjoyed his best season in nearly a decade. With three wins, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500 triumph, he’s driven like he did in his early days at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
But somehow, some way, Earnhardt has slipped, fallen and plummeted in the last two races. Starting the Contender Round in a 12-way tie for first place, he’s dropped like a rock to the bottom of the Chase ocean.
And now he’s heading back to Talladega, where at one point early in his career he was so successful and victorious with five wins that fans started to call it TallaDalega.
But Junior’s last win on the 2.66-mile high-banked track was a decade ago, ironically enough, in fall of 2004 – just like this weekend.
Since then, Junior has competed 19 more times at ‘Dega with just three top-fives and three other top-10s.
There have been no wins, although he did come close in this race last season, finishing runner-up.
While as a journalist, you’re not supposed to have favorites, as a race fan I can’t help but feel sorry for Earnhardt’s plight.
This was supposed to be THE season for Junior. After winning Daytona, the year just had a different feel.
And for perhaps the first time in Earnhardt’s career, he had himself and his fans believing that this would finally be the year he’d earn that elusive first Sprint Cup championship.
There were other incentives as well. He was turning 40 (did so this past Friday) and to show his appreciation for all the things that crew chief Steve Letarte had done for him in the last three seasons, Junior was bound and determined to send Letarte out as a winner.
(Letarte will leave Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports at the end of this season to become a full-time NASCAR analyst for NBC.)
How has THE season, the long hoped for season, the one where Junior was going to channel Larry The Cable Guy and “Git ‘er done,” suddenly fallen apart so badly?
How heartbroken will the Junior Nation be if their favorite driver – and the most popular driver the last 11 seasons – fails to seal what looked like it was a sure thing, it was meant to be?
Two things will happen at Talladega. Either Junior wins there and the place and NASCAR and the sport go crazy in response, or he leaves there having come so close, only to fall short once again.
In a season where many felt it was Junior’s destiny to finally win the Cup crown, to come so close only to fall short, perhaps the actual reality is that maybe being a Sprint Cup champ will never be meant to be for Junior.
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