Dale Earnhardt Jr. must win at Richmond to keep elusive Cup title hopes alive
By Kyle McFadden
September 9, 2017
RICHMOND, Va.—Some 21 years ago, June 22, 1996, in the then-Busch Series Carolina Pride / Red Dog 250 at Myrtle Beach Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. embarked on a journey that buzzed with hype like no other.
Ever since the son of a NASCAR legend—soon-to-be seven-time champ—left the womb, weighty expectations were automatically inherited. Earnhardt Jr.finished 14th that day in a debut 21 years in the making, and just like that, his NASCAR career was off and running.
He won championships in his first two full seasons of competition in 1998 and 1999 in the Busch Series in addition to winning 13 times.
The following year, he won his first Cup race, which started a stretch of 15 wins over the next five years. In that span, he placed 16th, eighth, 11th, third and fifth in the standings.
Many rightfully believed a Cup title was his destiny. Kyle Petty even said Earnhardt Jr. had “unlimited potential.”
But here we are, 13 years removed from that beginning with so much promise, and Dale Jr. is staring at his last chance to compete for that elusive Cup title in tonight’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.
Well out of the provisional race, 303 points behind, Earnhardt Jr. needs a win, or title hopes at the Cup level are dashed forever.
“It’d be the biggest, top-five win of my career, considering the circumstances; win and get in, get in [the playoffs] and all that good stuff,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “If we come out of here with a win, it’d be quite the surprise; not for you guys, but us, too. You got to go in there and try.”
Ironically enough, his considered hometown track of Myrtle Beach Speedway is designed eerily similar to the 0.75-mile Richmond circuit—two identical settings that ignited and foreseeably halt the relentless quest for a Cup title.
But realistically, what are the chances of Dale Jr. pulling off the unthinkable?
Let’s be honest, Earnhardt Jr. is on pace for his second-worst statistical season of his career, and not doing much better than his worst season in 2009. He has one top-five and led just 24 laps. Speed has been non-existent all year.
What about the positives? Well, he’s won at Richmond three times, with the last coming in 2006.
In Friday morning’s first practice he clocked the sixth-fastest lap time and had the 11th-best 10-lap average. It’s not the best, but it’s enough to sustain a glimmer of hope.
“Like I said, our car is not off the charts slow, but it’s not the best car here, either,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had the fastest car in practice any races we’ve run here, or even the ones we won. A lot of things can happen during the race, strategy and so forth. “With pit stops and stages, you can get yourselves in the right position on that restart, and you can do the job.”
And if having to win to just keep title aspirations alive isn’t enough pressure, he’ll have to do it without crew chief Greg Ives, who is suspended for this weekend because of a lug-nut infraction at last weekend’s Darlington race.
Nothing is given, but for the lifeblood of NASCAR—the son who had to become “The Man” after his father died on a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 and bore fans’ grief after that somber afternoon—and the 14-time most popular driver to go title-less is just now it’s supposed to end.
“I definitely thought [he was going to win a Cup title],” said Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dale Jr.’s nephew and driver of the No. 33 Hulu Chevrolet for Circle Sport / TMG.
“Back then, DEI was rocking. They were the [expletive], one of the best teams in the business. After my grandpa passed away [Dale Earnhardt Sr.], a lot of things changed.
“DEI and things got tougher, then the sport grew to be tougher, competition got stiffer. It’s not by a lack of effort on his part by any means.
“He’s busted his ass every time he got in a race car, and he carries more on his shoulders than probably anyone out here. You know, it’s tough. This series has grown to be such a tough, competitive series. You really have to be damn near perfect for 36 races in order to win a championship.”
Unfortunately for Earnhardt Jr., the pursuit of perfection and trying to live up to his daddy’s standards locked him in an unbearable pressure-cooker.
He handled all of that with utmost professionalism, there’s no doubt about that, building what 75-year-old racer Morgan Shepherd calls “the biggest fanbase in the history of the sport.”
“There will never be another Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Shepherd, the 50-year NASCAR veteran who raced against the likes of Richard Petty and Dale Sr., said Friday.
Dale Jr. even touched up on it in Friday’s presser. In racing, there’s only two things that matter: Money and trophies.
The money is never in question.
The trophies? Twenty-six Cup wins and a pair of minor-league titles are nice, but in a world where you’re judged off rings and defining moments, Dale Jr.’s ledger can be viewed just as bland as it is accomplished.
So, considering those lofty expectations way back when and circumstances on Saturday night, how does he want to be remembered?
“I hope people thought I was good, had some talent,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
“It doesn’t matter to me where on the scale that I rank, but I hope [people] credit me with having some ability and that I race guys, my competitors, with respect, raced hard, but with respect. There’s guys out there that I enjoy racing against, and that’s how I hope [my competitors] view me.
“You know, it’s a big body of work,” Earnhardt added, perhaps referring to his racing resume. “Looking over my XFINITY races and all the Cup races, I think that there’s a lot to chew on there and there’s a good amount of substance. I feel pretty confident I made a good impact on the race track as a driver, leisurely and on paper.
“I think I’m a pretty good race car driver. … I just hope people thought I was good and had some talent. You know, I hope people acknowledge that part of it.”
It’s a topic that’ll be debated for many generations to come. How will a title-less Dale Jr. be remembered, not as a person, but as a race car driver?
After 620 Cup races of trial and error, one final opportunity remains. A win will keep those hopes alive for at least a few more weeks.
Anything short of that? Cup title hopes are dashed forever.
Austin McFadden/The Racing Experts Dante Ricci/The Racing Experts Matt Courson/The Racing Experts