Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a good race car driver. He may eventually be great. He has racing in his blood. But let's not crown him the next King of NASCAR. At least not yet. His rookie year on the Winston Cup circuit is unfolding into a very successful one, with wins at Richmond and the Texas Motor Speedway. He even outran the field to capture The Winston last weekend. He's the first driver to win two races this year and only the third driver in NASCAR history (Davey Allison and Tony Stewart are the others) to win two races in a rookie year. And the year is only one-third complete! He's won over $900,000 in earnings. That's pretty impressive. Everyone admits that he's off to one heck of a start in 2000.
And two first-place finishes in an entire year would be desirable by any driver. But let's look at the races in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't end up in victory lane. He has averaged a 21st place finish over the first 11 races. That's about midway in an average 40-plus car lineup. Other than his two first-place finishes, he has no top-five finishes and only one top-ten finish. He has finished 25th place or worse in five races to date.
Over the years, some NASCAR drivers have only excelled on certain types of tracks. Some are known to be competitive on short tracks, others on the big ovals. So far this year, it appears that Dale Earnhardt Jr's strength is on the mid-length tracks. In short track races, he has not finished well. At Bristol he ended up in 38th place and then 26th place at Martinsville. How has he competed on the longer superspeedway courses? In tracks of two-mile length or more, he has a 22nd place average finish this year. The challenge of the NASCAR
road courses has yet to be encountered by this potential Rookie of the Year.
I generally don't like comparing athletes of any sport. It is so subjective that it usually proves to be a futile effort. But just for argument's sake, let me pick a former Rookie of the Year as a partner for comparison. It would have to be someone in the modern era, and a driver that had laurels heaped upon them early on in their career. The year 1993 and the driver Jeff Gordon come to mind. In Jeff's rookie year, he did not win a single race. He did, however, have seven top-five and eleven top-ten finishes. What this showed was a level of consistency in his first year in Winston Cup competition. Consistency is what wins championships, and consistency requires being competitive on all types of tracks. Jeff has proven that he can compete and win on tracks from Bristol to Daytona. Despite two wins this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is only 17th in the point standings. Most NASCAR fans would consider Jeff Gordon as having a subpar season in 2000. Yet even during a season not up to his standard, Jeff resides in 9th place in the point standings. And it's all due to a high level of consistency.
Dale Earnhardt Jr's future in NASCAR looks quite bright. With his potential, he may eventually be one of the great race car drivers of the era. But until he is able to develop a level of consistency that wins a championship, let's not order that crown quite yet.
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by Frank Ryan