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NASCAR Season Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

Born: October 10, 1974

Home: Kannapolis, North Carolina

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Last year was a step up for Earnhardt Jr., as team owner Rick Hendrick switched around the crews of all three of his drivers not named Jimmie Johnson. Paired with Steve Letarte and Jeff Gordon’s former crew, he scored double-digit top 10s for the first time since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He also made the Chase for the Sprint Cup after two consecutive seasons outside the top 20th in points, and managed to rank a respectable 7th when all was said and done.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: It’s still been over three years since Earnhardt Jr. won a race. His best chance in 2011 slipped away when he ran out of gas while in the lead at Charlotte in May. He also only led 52 laps all season, a career low.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Trying to analyze the son of the Intimidator is always a risky proposition. It’s difficult to look at his career statistics and discern a reasonable pattern, as there are just as many good seasons as bad ones on his resume. But when dealing with the sport’s most popular driver by a wide margin, it’s tough to say much that’s negative without catching hell for it, such as pointing out that he’s only had six wins in national NASCAR series since 2005, and noting that half of those came in the Nationwide Series.

Here’s the most likely scenario for this season: Earnhardt Jr. will be a fringe Chase driver or one of the first to miss the cut through 26 races. His performances in the weeks immediately preceding the cutoff should dictate his Chase performance; if they’re mid-pack, he won’t be much of a threat, but if they’re consistent top 10s, he could be this year’s so-so driver with a surprisingly strong Chase. Even if he misses the Chase, he should break his winless streak this season. He almost has no choice.

– Chris Leone

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