Views from the Grandstands

What’s Wrong With Junior?

NASCAR’s most popular driver is raking in the bucks in endorsements, but his racetrack performance is bust

By Kay Bell


In the middle of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville in October, the crowd rose as one to its feet and cheered wildly, as if on cue. Why? Dale Earnhardt Jr. had taken the lead. He stayed out front for 90 laps around the paperclip-shaped short track before eventually falling back to finish seventh.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The next week at Talladega, the scenario repeated itself as Junior led a race-high 24 laps. But before he could make it to the finish on the supersize superspeedway, where he’s won five times, he wrecked Jeff Burton in an entirely avoidable accident, lost 25 laps getting his own car fixed up and finished in 39th place.

Earnhardt remains one of NASCAR’s most popular and best-paid drivers and, with 18 career Sprint Cup victories, one of its most accomplished performers. But after winning a whopping six times in 2004, he’s returned to Sprint Cup victory lane only three times, and not at all since the Michigan race in June 2008. He hasn’t even finished in the top 10 in points since 2006.

And as the 2011 season kicks off — coincidentally, with the Daytona 500, where his father, the great Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed 10 years ago — I can’t help but wonder whether Junior’s best days on the track are in the rearview mirror.

Personally, I hope not. I became a fan early on, drawn to his shy smile, refreshingly honest answers to questions and appealing personality. The guy was the son of one of NASCAR’s all-time greats, yet he lived for years in a doublewide and seemed happy as a clam.

Now he’s a gazillionaire and looks miserable, and I wonder if there’s a correlation. According to Forbes, he rakes in around $34 million a year and regularly pops up in dozens upon dozens of advertisements, TV shows, music videos, computer games and more.

At this point, the driver he most reminds me of is Danica Patrick. She also has much more money and popularity than success, is dramatically overexposed and seldom seems like she’s enjoying what she’s doing. The fact that she’s driving for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series is more than a coincidence to me. It’s a wake-up call for Earnhardt to regain his own focus.

Junior will begin the 2011 season at age 36, likely putting him closer to the end of his career than the beginning, especially if he can’t shake himself out of the doldrums. I believe he can get his mojo back, though, and I have some ideas on how he should go about it.

First, he needs to fully embrace the high-tech, high-intensity culture at Hendrick Motorsports. I’m sure he felt much more comfortable in the family atmosphere at DEI (before he and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt had their famous falling out, anyway), but no one knows how to succeed in today’s NASCAR more than Hendrick. Junior ought to get with the program and soak up everything he possibly can from Hendrick’s drivers, crews, managers and executives.

Second, Earnhardt needs to dedicate himself to improving his communication with his team. His in-race radio conversations with crew chief Lance McGrew this past season seemed positively primitive when compared to the precise, articulate feedback Jimmie Johnson provides his crew chief, Chad Knaus. The more details Earnhardt can provide his crew, the better their chance of improving the car, and only Earnhardt can make that happen.

Third, Junior should make a concerted effort to shed some of the pressure he puts on himself. He knows how much he means to NASCAR’s marketing machine, and the weight of those expectations really seems to have worn him down. He is a key part of NASCAR’s promotional efforts, but the sport will survive with or without him being front and center so much. He simply needs to forget about NASCAR’s big picture and concentrate on his own situation for a while.

Hendrick Motorsports’ higher-ups also need to be much more proactive. After two disappointing seasons, I’m convinced they need to shake things up to give Junior a fighting chance to turn his career around.

For the past two seasons, Junior’s No. 88 has shared a garage with Mark Martin’s 5, while Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 and Jeff Gordon’s 24 have shared a garage. For 2011, though, Hendrick has moved the No. 24 in with the 5, and made the No. 88 team roommates with the 48.

That’s a great move. Maybe some of Johnson’s success will rub off on Junior and his crew. If it were me, I’d also give Chad Knaus the job of casting a critical eye on the No. 88 team and helping it in any way possible.

If Chad can’t fix Junior, I’m not sure he can be fixed.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

 

LOOSE LUGNUTS

The big switch I’m still getting over the bold move Chad Knaus made late last season to completely switch out Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew with Jeff Gordon’s over-the-wall squad in the middle of the Texas race and then keep the No. 24 crew with the 48 team for the rest of the season.

Afterward, Knaus insisted the move was no big deal because of the close relationship between the teams, while some observers saw it as a rare sign of desperation on Knaus’ part. I fall in the middle of those two points of view. This was clearly a big deal, despite Knaus’ protestations. I don’t see it as desperate, though, but rather a gutsy decision that further cements Knaus’ status as NASCAR’s best, most creative and most ruthless crew chief since Ray Evernham back in the 1990s.

Checkers or prison stripes I got a huge chuckle in the days leading up to the Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix, when a Brazilian prosecutor threatened to throw Brazilian driver Felipe Massa in jail for six years if Massa let his Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso pass him during the race. Special Courts Prosecutor Paulo Castilho apparently was upset that Massa, well down in the standings, would be ordered by his Ferrari bosses to finish behind Alonso to aid Alonso’s bid to win the F1 driver’s title. Doing so, Castilho contended, would constitute “sporting fraud,” though it was never clear whether there is even a law in Brazil covering such a thing.

What is clear, though, is that Castilho doesn’t understand Formula 1, which is unapologetically a team sport. And fortunately for all involved, Alonso qualified well ahead of Massa and stayed there as Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel easily won the race.

A racer’s racer If you have any doubt that Tony Stewart is the ultimate racer, check out what he did while awaiting the Sprint Cup race in Phoenix. He took a side trip to the 5/16-mile clay oval at Southern New Mexico Speedway in Las Cruces for his first-ever start in a Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series race, which paid a whopping $6,000 to the winner. Stewart started on the front row of his heat, but finished 14th after he bumped another car and flipped over several times on the race’s 12th lap. World of Outlaws legend Steve Kinser earned the victory that night.

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