Racing for, and even winning racing championships is nothing new for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even as all the naysayers foretell that he will come up short in his efforts to win the Sprint Cup in 2008, many forget that Earnhardt Jr. is already a two time champion in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, which at the time was known as the Busch Series.
Dale Jr.'s father won the Cup championship 7 times in his career, and came very close to winning a few more. Dale Jr.'s previous best shot at winning the Cup came in 2004, when he won 7 races and was in contention until having problems near the very end of the season. Dale Jr. knows that all it takes is one little mistake, and a driver can take his team completely out of the running in just the blink of an eye. I was at the fall Atlanta race in 2004 when Dale Jr. spun on the backstretch, effectively ending his hopes for the Cup that year. After such a successful season, the pain and frustration that Dale Jr. felt after the race was reflected in the faces of the fans at the track, a huge sea of red, which was the color of Budweiser, Dale Jr.'s sponsor back in those days.
To say that Earnhardt Jr. wants to win the Cup championship would be like you or I saying that we want air to breathe or water to drink. Dale Jr. has come close, so close he can taste it, and has come up short thus far. He knows that these next 10 races will have to be perfect. Perfection does not mean that he has to win the next 10 races. It just means that he cannot make any major mistakes on the track or in the pits. He knows that his crew chief has to make solid decisions, and that his pit crew has to perform as a well oiled machine. He cannot suffer engine problems. He must not put himself in a position to wreck, yet he must charge hard and try to finish up front each and every race.
Arguably, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is equipped with the best team and the best equipment he's ever had in his career. This year, he broke a 76 race winless streak at Michigan. For the first part of the season, he was one of the most consistent drivers on the track. After a few late season miscues, some of which were of his own making, Dale Jr. finished the race to the Chase with a solid top 5 finish at Richmond last week. What Dale Jr. and the 88 team must do now is to make sure they have their game face on for the next 10 races. Any ironing out of problems or differences must now be complete if they are going to finish the season in first place.
Technically, each of the 12 drivers who made the Chase has a legitimate shot at winning the championship. Dale Jr. knows he will have to drive some of his very best races in the coming weeks if he is to overcome the odds that face him right now. The 3 drivers ahead of him in points have won a total of 18 races between them this year. Teammate Jimmie Johnson appears to have momentum on his side right now, having won 3 or his 4 races in the latter part of the season leading up to the Chase. Kyle Busch has been dominate at practically every track at which he's raced this year. Carl Edwards has been so strong, his insurance company has to be considering raising his premiums, in the event that Carl finally misses one of his signature back flips and lands on his head. In other words, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows that to win the championship, he will be fighting an uphill battle all the way.
Eight other Chase drivers will be facing the same uphill battle as Dale Jr. There are other drivers not in the chase who will be desperate to make a good showing of themselves as well, whether it be just to put a better face on a disappointing season, or to help keep their sponsors for next year. Though the spotlight will be mostly on the 12 Chase drivers for the rest of the season, the best way to break into that circle of light will be to win a race. Just because there are only 12 drivers in contention for the championship, it will not mean that the rest of the field will meekly pull over and let the championship contenders drive on by. In fact, quite the opposite might happen.
Few NASCAR drivers come from as pure of a racing heritage as does Dale Earnhardt Jr. His father knew how to race for and win championships, and a younger Dale Jr. did so as well back in the old Busch Series. An older, wiser Dale Jr. has proven his ability to keep his cool under adversity and pressure, and as long as he keeps doing much of what he's been doing all year, he will be a serious contender for the championship this year.
For Dale Jr., it's all in his hands and in the hands of his team now.