Has it reached the point where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has tumbled so far into mediocrity that he’s become no more than also-ran who garners little attention?
There are many who would agree.
However, you will never convince his many fans, although some of them follow him only through loyalty – rather than the anticipation he’s going to do great things on the racetrack. After all, it’s been so very long since he has. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
When Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick Motorsports at the start of the 2008 season the union was widely recognized as one that could rank among NASCAR’s best. Hendrick would get a superlative driver with a large legacy and huge marketing power. Earnhardt Jr. would join a team, which would bring him victories and a championship. Instead, Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. haven’t won many races or had a whiff at a NASCAR title.
In 2008, things were promising. Earnhardt Jr. won a race, at Michigan in June, (which ended a 76-race losing streak), scored 10 top-five finishes, 16 among the top 10 and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He was seeded fourth but stumbled and wound up 12th in the final point standings. It wasn’t a spectacular performance but it certainly sparked hopes for better things, which have never appeared.
In the last two years Earnhardt Jr. has no wins, only five finishes among the top five and 13 among the top 10. He was 25th in points in 2009 and ranked 19th before the final race of 2010. His average finish was 22.2 in 2009 and 18.9 in 2010, prior to Homestead. Even for the most ardent Earnhardt Jr. fan the numbers have to be sobering.
Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick did not sit idly by as things deteriorated. Team owner Rick Hendrick vowed he would use all of his team’s massive resources, if necessary, to improve performance. After 12 races in 2009 Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. was removed after Earnhardt Jr. finished 40th at Charlotte. Brian Whitesell took over for one race and then Lance McGrew was given the position for the remainder of 2009 and all of 2010.
Now it seems McGrew might be replaced for 2011 although that issue will not be addressed until this season is over. But it’s a clear indication that the Hendrick organization continues to search for something that will restore Earnhardt Jr.
For quite some time now, the rumblings about Earnhardt Jr. have simmered and glowed like a smoldering fire. They suggest that, if a couple of crew chiefs can’t make a difference, perhaps the problem is the driver. They purport that the Hendrick organization has never been able to find the formula, by whatever means, that will make Earnhardt Jr. a winner like its other three drivers. It’s been said Earnhardt Jr. has never established chemistry and unity with his team.
The gossip gets personal: Earnhardt Jr.’s heart is not in it. Given all that has happened his head is screwed up. He has problems that don’t have anything to do with racing and have caused him to lose focus. What the hell, he was never more than a mediocre driver, anyway. There’s more.
Don’t buy the mediocre driver stuff. Earnhardt Jr. won 17 races with Dale Earnhardt Inc., a team he left largely because of professional – and likely personal – differences with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt following the death of his father and team owner. A competitor who wins 17 races with one team can drive a race car. Enough said.
Many believed that Earnhardt Jr.’s union with Hendrick could, and should, have produced 17 more victories by now. But, of course, it hasn’t. Why? I don’t know. You don’t either. I suspect only a very, very few have any real idea. It’s safe to assume two of them are Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. They’ll likely be the catalysts for positive change.
That, of course, is what’s needed. It is for Hendrick and, let’s be real here, also for NASCAR, which undeniably would love to see its most popular driver be victorious. But it’s most needed for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Victory, making the Chase and a restoration to prominence that forces the media, that now regard him as less than newsworthy, will be his restoration.
Can it happen? Of course. Will it? We’ll see.