Daytona 500 win marks completion of Junior's transformation
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked both excited and confident|
after winning the 56th Daytona 500 on Sunday. (Getty)
Aside from his 11-year stranglehold on the title of "Most Popular Driver," Dale Jr. has rarely stood taller than the rest of the NASCAR field. His journey to this position has been one that's woven through small peaks and deep valleys, but finally appears to have ascended toward a mountain's summit.
Entering 2014, Junior had won just two races since the end of the 2006 season, when he finished fifth in the standings - and both of them were at Michigan International Speedway.
From 2007-10, he finished no better than 12th in the standings, and that included season finishes of 21st and 25th in the final standings. To put that in perspective, Danica Patrick finished 27th last year as a rookie and her performance came under a lot of fire.
Things began to turn in 2011, as Junior vaulted himself back into the Chase and finished seventh. In 2012, he snapped a 143-race winless streak and even spent time as the points leader before a concussion suffered in a wreck at Talladega cost him two races and dashed any title aspirations.