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CUP: Junior Achievement?

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The number is nice but not fancy.

19.

In a Sprint Cup career that started in a deluge of publicity in 1999 and saw him race a full schedule for the first time in 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won 19 times.

The view from most corners is that the number should be considerably bigger at this point – the start of Earnhardt Jr.’s 14th full-time season at the Cup level. Junior himself was responsible for constructing some of that expectation as he won 15 times in his first five seasons, all at Dale Earnhardt Inc. That stretch included a third-place finish in points in the 2003 season, a run that also encouraged his followers and all the other disciples connected in one way or another to Earnhardt Nation to keep pounding the drums for a Sprint Cup championship.

But Junior’s numbers have been mostly silent since then. He has only two wins in the past five seasons, all at Hendrick Motorsports, one of the sport’s top organizations. He won in 2008 then was shut out of victory lane until last year. Illustrating the pain – only two top-five runs in 2009, three in 2010 and four in 2011 (all winless seasons).

Current Cup drivers with career victory totals identical or similar to Junior are Carl Edwards (19), Kevin Harvick (19), Greg Biffle (18) and Ryan Newman (16). All started their full-time Cup careers after Junior.

At 38, Earnhardt Jr. no longer is the skinny kid who raced in his father’s shadow and seemed destined for a line of championships. He is in the middle years of his driving career, and he now enters each season carrying the weight of dreams unrealized.

There was a turn toward the light last year. Junior escaped the grips of a vexing winless streak by scoring on the brink of summer at Michigan. That settled the thirst of much of Junior Nation, but Earnhardt Jr.’s on-track consistency was probably a bigger thing in the overall scope of the year. He led 358 laps, his biggest total in four years, and he finished on the lead lap in 29 of 34 races. He made the Chase, although missing two races because of concussions ended any shot he had at that first elusive championship.

Now, the expectations – with Junior, there always are expectations – are that the No. 88 team will build on that strong base from 2012 and make magic – more wins, a solid run at a championship – happen.

Jeff Gordon, not exactly an unbiased observer because Junior is a Hendrick teammate, said he likes Junior’s chances.

“It’s a great team in the best organization,” Gordon said. “Steve Letarte is a great crew chief. They click well together. Junior is a great driver.

“It’s just that things have to click at the right time. It seems like guys peak at certain moments in the season. With the way the points are now, you’ve got to peak right at the end of the season. You’ve got to be careful of getting off to too good of a start and how you maintain that momentum.

“I think Junior had a great start to the season, and then it seems things flattened out a little bit for them and it was hard for them to get it ramped back up.”

But Earnhardt Jr. at least was in the target area last year, thanks largely to the fact that he and Letarte seem to play on the same level.

“I think we were in the conversation last year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m really excited about how consistent we were last year. We've been able to improve as we've worked together. We've been able to improve steadily over the last couple years. I hope that's able to continue.

“I hope we haven't realized our true potential. Maybe this year, if we can step it up another notch, we'd be right there where we've been striving to be the last couple years. It isn't going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams. We were pretty close last year and feel pretty good about that.”

What needs to happen to close the gap?

“It's hard to put your finger on what a team needs,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “No matter how close it is or far off it is, it's hard to really put your finger on exactly what you're missing, especially when you work with a company like I do that's got all the parts, pieces, all the personnel and does such a good job delivering the physical race car to you. It really comes down to the minds that are in control of everything – me and Steve making the right calls and decisions on the race track.”

Gordon said Earnhardt Jr. moved in the right direction when he decided to settle at Hendrick Motorsports six years ago.

“To me, where he earned so much respect in my book was that he looked at Hendrick Motorsports as a team that he wanted to come to, knowing how much pressure there would be, how good the equipment would be,” Gordon said. “That could also add pressure, not necessarily take it away, yet he wanted that challenge and he felt like that's the right place to be.

“That's the mindset you should have. A quality driver that feels like they can go win championships should have that kind of mindset, and he did. That certainly earned a bunch of points in my mind. Now I think that decision is starting to pay off.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.