It's hard to believe that about 14 years ago, on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made his official first start in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
For a racer who was the "fresh face" and one of the spotlight drivers of the "next generation" that included Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Casey Atwood, and Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt has made a name for himself in stock car racing. With 19 wins and five years placing within the top-10 in points, he's had a solid career so far and has made about three legit bids at the championship.
Last season was possibly Earnhardt's best shot at the title, parlaying consistency through most of the 2012 campaign before a testing crash at Kansas Speedway dealt him with a concussion that went undisclosed for nearly two months.
His injury would be resurface when he got swept up in a multi-car crash at Talladega, getting slammed in the driver's side before getting into several collisions in about every side of his No. 88 car.
Despite the crash not looking as grinding as Tony Stewart's in that race, Earnhardt came to his senses and sat out two races after consulting with Dr. Jerry Petty. A somewhat rare move in today's world of motorsports, the pride of Kannapolis, NC saw his bid of the Cup title end prematurely but with his health for the long haul as his priority.
Although the injury ended his title efforts in 2012, the 10-time Most Popular Driver winner had a solid season, which saw a much-chronicled four year winless streak end on Father's Day weekend at the very same track where he had last won a Cup race - Michigan International Speedway.
Consistency was Earnhardt's trademark in the year, opting to go for the solid result rather than go for broke like in his DEI tenure from 2000-'07. His communication with crew chief Steve Letarte greatly improved and the chemistry with the No. 88 team was about as strong as ever, strong enough to make a serious bid for the championship.
Perhaps the greatest news for Earnhardt coming into 2013 is that he'll no longer have to deal with the Car of Tomorrow, a car that he had admitted having a difficult time getting a handle of after years of driving the previous generation.
While this car doesn't promise to rid of the dependencies and intricate and sensitive nature of aerodynamics, it's a car that puts everyone back on a level playing field. Additionally, it's said to be somewhat similar to the previous car, which is one where Earnhardt could simply let it rip and race hard.
Look for Earnhardt to have some struggles throughout the year but make gains in the second half of this season, building momentum to clinch a Chase berth and compile a solid stretch of finishes in the final 10 races. A couple of wins are in the offing, particularly at the intermediates and short tracks, while the plate tracks may prove to be his Achilles' heal (unless it's the Daytona 500).
Championships might not be a part of Earnhardt's resume when all is said and done, but if one were to not account for his father's success and judge him based on his family name, what Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has done in his career is certainly good enough to consider him one of the better racers of his generation.
Having come into his own and growing more comfortable with his individuality as well as the pressures and nuances of stock car racing, it'll be fun to watch the former young gun race with one goal in mind: going for that championship.
And oh yea, he's most likely going to race you had and beat you on iRacing.com.