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Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. UNDER or OVERRATED as a Driver?

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of if not the best ambassador for the sport of NASCAR. He still maintains an incredible following that has stuck beside him for over two decades. As a driver, however, he had his ups and downs in his racing career.

He is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as both a driver and an owner. He is a member of the NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers list as well. However, some have wondered whether or not Dale Earnhardt Jr. is overrated as a race car driver given how up-and-down his career was.

Was Dale Earnhardt Jr. overrated, underrated, or was he properly rated given how his career was. Here is a look at that given how his career was.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Career Overview

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final career line is as follows: 26 wins, 149 Top-5s, 260 Top-10s, and 15 Poles in 631 career starts. That is definitely not a stat line to be overlooked. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of only 35 drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history to have won 25 or more races.

Of those 35 drivers, 26 are currently in the Hall of Fame. Of the drivers not in the Hall of Fame, eight of them are either active or not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame being Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, and Jim Paschal.

One of the biggest glaring problems with Earnhardt Jr.’s resume, however, is the fact that he lacks a Championship. He never really even came that close to winning a Championship. He was mathematically eligible for the Cup heading into the season finale only twice during his career in 2004 and 2006, and only finished as high as third in the standings.

So, some may ask that if Earnhardt Jr. was truly a Hall of Famer, then would he not be a Champion at least once? Then again, plenty of great drivers never won championships including Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, and Mark Martin.

So, what was Earnhardt Jr.’s career trajectory like? What parts of his career were better than others?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Highest Highs

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career trajectory can be split into three different segments. His early career with great success (2000-2004), struggling years (2005-2010), and his career resurgence (2011-2017). So, just how good was Dale Earnhardt Jr. during his best moments?

During the early part of his career, Earnhardt Jr. was a threat to win week-in and week-out. From 2000 until 2004, he won multiple races every single year. He was particularly dominant on the restrictor plate race tracks where he won four straight races at Talladega between 2001 and 2003, and he won the 2004 Daytona 500.

He finished as high as third in the points standings in 2003, and followed that up with his career high in wins in 2004. He came within 138 points of the title in 2004, which is as close as he ever came to a Championship.

After a difficult slump in the middle of his career caused by a multitude of issues, Earnhardt Jr. found his footing again in 2011 with new crew chief Steve Letarte. He returned to the top-5 in points for the first time in seven seasons in 2013, and he led the points at one point in 2012. Injuries played a role in some of what kept him from fully realizing his potential in 2012.

Between 2014 and 2015, Earnhardt Jr. won seven races, the first time in a decade that he won multiple races in a season. He would eventually retire in 2017.

So, when he was at his peak, Earnhardt Jr. could win multiple races in a season. He was never quite good enough to win a championship, but he was a threat to win week-in and week-out. However, you cannot talk about him without talking about his mid-career slump.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Lowest Lows

In 2005, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated made some changes, and their downward slope began. Earnhardt Jr. went from winning six races and finishing in the top-5 in the points to finishing a then career-worst 19th. In 2006 he rebounded, but in 2007, it was back to struggling.

Earnhardt Jr actually took some responsibility for what happened at DEI in 2005. He talked about what happened in a recent episode of the Dale Jr Download.

In 2007, Earnhardt Jr. had nine DNFs, but six of those were engine failures. The struggling engine program of DEI made it a tough year for him, but his teammate Martin Truex Jr. made the Playoffs that season. In 2008, Earnhardt Jr. moved to Hendrick Motorsports.

He won a race in 2008, but he faltered late in the season to finish 12th in the points. In 2009 and 2010, he had abysmal seasons finishing 25th and 21st in the points. Not only that, but he went four years between trips to victory lane.

At his lowest lows, he was the worst driver on the best team in the sport. Keep in mind, this was the middle of Jimmie Johnson’s dominance. Hendrick Motorsports was one of the best teams in motorsports even back then.

Most drivers have a slump of some sort, but rarely does it happen in the middle of their career. Sometimes it happens with drivers like Terry Labonte, but it is rare. Is that enough to call Earnhardt Jr. overrated?

Conclusion

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not the greatest race car driver of all-time. However, at his best, he was able to compete with and beat some of the best drivers this sport has ever seen. His overall resume is quite impressive, and he did not spend his entire career riding around in 25th just collecting paychecks.

Sure he had his difficult moments, and maybe there was some things that he wanted to accomplish that he never did. However, calling him a Hall of Famer is not that big of a stretch when looking at his resume. That being said, it was not a totally smooth ride to get there.

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Joshua Lipowski

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