Top 20 Countdown: No. 12 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

Earnhardt photo
(Getty Images)

2011 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
7 1 0 4 12
The countdown
No. 20: Marcos Ambrose   |   Career stats
No. 19: Kurt Busch   |   Career stats
No. 16: Jeff Burton   |   Career stats
No. 15: Clint Bowyer   |   Career stats
No. 13: Ryan Newman   |   Career stats
No. 11: Revealed Friday, Feb. 3

2011 finish: 7th

Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 11th
• Jay Busbee: 11th
• Nick Bromberg: 14th
• Geoffrey Miller: 14th

Crew chief: Steve Letarte

Offseason action: Gained Diet Mountain Dew as a new primary sponsor to go along with National Guard.

2012 outlook: Fifty-two. That’s how many laps Dale Earnhardt Jr. led last season. That’s six fewer than Joey Logano, a third as many as Martin Truex Jr. and 3 percent of Kyle Busch’s total.

Why bring this up?

Because if Junior is to snap his 129-race winless streak, he needs to put himself in position to win, and aside from Martinsville (1) and Charlotte (1), he didn’t do that often enough in 2011.

And if momentum counts for anything, the news isn’t good for Earnhardt. From June 19 on (a span of 22 races), Junior had just four top 10s and only a single top-five finish. This late-season swoon is right on course with a disturbing pattern (if you’re in Earnhardt’s camp) since he joined Hendrick Motorsports. In four seasons with HMS, Junior has notched 41 top-10 finishes. Of those, only 12 have come in the second half of the season.

There is little doubt Junior will come out firing on all cylinders. He’ll be in the mix to win the Daytona 500 and likely notch enough solid finishes early on to put him into Chase contention no matter what he does during the summer months.

The question is whether or not he can sustain his effort throughout the course of a 36-race season.

The key may just be getting back to victory lane – and soon. Because while Junior says he is relaxed heading into this season and insists he and crew chief Steve Letarte gained a mountain of information in 2011 (their first year working together) that will help them in 2012, the winless streak still weighs on him. It’s as if he enters every season full of positivity, but every additional loss sucks some of that out of him. By midseason, he’s left completely dry.

His tank is once again full, but to keep it that way and avoid another second-half meltdown he must get to victory lane – fast.

Point of interest: When asked if Junior’s winless streak hurts the sport, Brian France replied, “It hurts. It hurts. He is trying to win and get his team to have the confidence to not only win one but rip off more. He did improve and made the Chase. He’s a big franchise. He’s the most popular driver in NASCAR, so it would help us if he would win.”

Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
Wetzel: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a contrarian with a plan
NCAA Basketball: Mike Huguenin projects the NCAA tourney field of 68
Boxing: Trainer of champions Angelo Dundee (1921-2012)