Dale Jr’s toughest NASCAR test

by Gordon Kirby on 12th May 2009

NASCAR’s most popular driver is having a tough year. When Dale Earnhardt Jr is introduced before the start of any NASCAR Sprint Cup race he enjoys more raucous cheers than any other driver and his swag – racin’ jackets, T-shirts, caps and other branded items – substantially outsell the rest of the field. But Dale Jr is struggling to find the form and results to justify the massive faith in his talents.

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After 11 of 36 races Earnhardt languishes a distant 18th in points, 419 behind championship leader and team-mate Jeff Gordon. Each of Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports team-mates – Gordon, defending champion Jimmie Johnson and veteran Mark Martin – have won races this year, but Earnhardt has only one top-five finish to his credit so far and has been largely outraced and outclassed by his team-mates.

When Earnhardt turned his back on the family team more than 18 months ago, Dale Earnhardt Inc, to stake his future on a move to Hendrick’s four-car super-team, his massive fan base believed the change would finally bring Dale Jr the skein of wins and the championship he richly deserved. That was the theory and the hope of so many true-blue ‘Li’l E’ fans, who believe Dale Jr carries his father’s genes both as a racer and an authentic, unaffected southern boy – a true, natural-born redneck.

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But reality has written a different story. Earnhardt Jr won just one race last year – on fuel mileage, no less – and finished 12th in the points, while Johnson and Gordon fought for the Sprint Cup title. This year he’s been even less competitive, struggling in the midfield in many races. It’s almost as if all the confidence and wind went out of Dale Jr’s sails following his barging match with Brian Vickers in the season-opening Daytona 500. Earnhardt came in for a lot of criticism in the wake of the incident and since then he’s rarely run at or near the front.

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Many of Earnhardt’s very vocal fan base believe the problem lies with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Eury is Earnhardt’s cousin and was his crew chief at DEI, moving to Hendrick’s team with Dale Jr at the end of 2007. The true believers are convinced that Eury doesn’t know how to properly interpret their hero’s thoughts over the radio during the races with regards to improving his car’s handling. If only Hendrick would find a better crew chief, goes the theory, then Dale Jr would start winning.

Now 34, Earnhardt has been racing Cup cars for 10 years. Back in 1998 and ’99, he won consecutive titles in NASCAR’s second-division Busch series (now known as the Nationwide series) and moved up to the Cup series in 2000 with DEI. Over the next seven years Dale Jr won 17 races and was in title contention in 2003 when he finished third in points, his best season to date. He won six races in ’04, but took just one win in 2005 and ’06, before failing to win at all and finishing 12th in ’07.

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Dale Jr was never close to his stepmother, Teresa, who ran DEI after his father’s death at Daytona in February 2001. As his results waned during 2005-06 the relationship also went south, and by the spring of ’07 Earnhardt was ready to announce a move to Rick Hendrick’s team for ’08. He switched sponsors from Budweiser to a combination of energy drink AMP and the National Guard, and changed numbers from #8 to #88. Some observers thought Dale Jr’s fans wouldn’t easily change allegiance, but come the 2008 Daytona 500 the grandstands were filled with massive swaths of Earnhardt’s new green and white colours, all proudly brandishing the new #88.

But their enthusiasm has not been rewarded. Gordon and Johnson have shown they are smarter, more technically-attuned drivers, as has 50-year-old veteran Martin who took over the team’s fourth car this year and recently won two Cup races, both entirely deserved.

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During the spring many ‘L’il E’ fans have begun to wonder what it’s all about. Maybe there’s more to it than Tony Eury. Maybe their hero is not the great driver so many of them believed him to be.

In the end, as we all know, it’s about more than popularity and being a good guy. It’s about results. And the time has come for Dale Jr to produce.

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