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NASCAR Driver of the Year vote: 10th

27 December 2011

Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011:
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Birthdate: 10 October 1974
Hometown: Kannapolis, North Carolina USA
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Crew chief: Steve Letarte
2011 starts: 36
Poles: 1
Wins: 0
Top 5: 4
Top 10: 12
Annual earnings: $4,163,690
Championship points: 2290
Championship position: 7th

You can tell that this isn't the usual stateside NASCAR fan poll, because Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't wipe the floor with the competition like he invariably does! In fact, he barely scraped into the top ten at all as far as Crash.net voters were concerned, and only a few final ballots squeezed him in front of Trevor Bayne for tenth position.

In some ways it's a shame that Bayne didn't make it in with that dazzling shock win of the Daytona 500 kicking off the 2011 season, because Dale Earnhardt Jr. was once again left without any trips to victory lane this season. But it hasn't been for lack of trying, and Earnhardt's had a much better year of it than the raw statistics might perhaps suggest, thanks in part to a new crew chief for the year in the form of Steve Letarte with whom Earnhardt has quickly formed a strong and effective partnership. The pertinent statistic that demonstrates this is that Junior's average finish for 2011 was 14.5 compared with his average starting position of 19.6 - the first time since 2006 that Earnhardt managed a better than one-place improvement between the two.

The early part of 2011 was the best for Earnhardt with a strong run of seven top 12 finishes, including a strong second place in the April outing at Martinsville. Then in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte he was leading the race on the final lap only to run dry on a knife-edge fuel strategy that had so nearly paid off - Harvick once again ended up winning the race, while Earnhardt gasped across the line in seventh. Still, the near-miss buoyed him up into a runner-up finish at Kansas the following week and a sixth-place run at Pocono the week after that, and his loyal fans were confident that a win was just around the corner. But then the #88's form waned again, and as the season went on he slipped back once more into the somewhat anonymous midfield. His early run of strong performances was just enough to just keep him locked into the Chase, during which he had back-to-back seventh places at Martinsville and Texas and 11th in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami; but he was never in any real contention for the title.

So there is still the irksome matter of having now gone 129 Cup races without a win - his last trip to victory lane was at Michigan in June 2008, making him the only driver among the Chase contenders not to win in 2011. That's a very long time without race success for a driver of Earnhardt's stature. He might not have any worries about his position in NASCAR (having just signed an extension with Hendrick through to the end of the 2017 season) but even the Junior Nation loyalists are getting just a bit restive about when their hero will reward their devotion with some conspicuous success.


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