The Frontstretch: Little E's Troubles May Be Psychological by Kurt Smith -- Thursday May 27, 2010

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Little E's Troubles May Be Psychological

Kurt Smith · Thursday May 27, 2010


Despite that my brain and mouth, while both very capable, move at totally different speeds and rarely in sync whenever I’m asked to speak publicly, the friendly fellows at ESPN Radio’s Carey and Coffey show still occasionally ask for my opinion on things NASCAR. Last week they invited me on to talk about the sport’s biggest star, and I thought I came up with a good take on Little E’s performance beforehand. Unfortunately, time constraints being what they are on the radio, I didn’t manage to work it into the discussion.

Matt and Jay both suggested as many in the press do that Junior simply isn’t that great a driver, and while they didn’t mean it like they were bashing him, it is undisputed that he has run well below expectations with the best team in the game.

There’s also a sizable chunk of media and of course, fans, that point out that the man has 18 wins in his career and challenged for titles in the past, so there has to be some talent there, even if seven of his wins came at restrictor plate tracks.

And in my strong willingness to avoid political correctness, I agree with everybody. The truth may be that they’re both right. Whether one assertion is more accurate than the other depends on the segment of Junior’s career one is evaluating.

Early on, wins were coming fairly frequently to the No. 8 team, and there wasn’t near the pressure to perform that there is today. He was a big fish in a small pond, driving for a two-car team as Hendrick and Roush were tearing up fields. Like with Jamie McMurray, it seemed as though he thrived better in an environment with lower expectations.

Junior has enjoyed strained at best relations with his mother, and had plenty of reasons on and off the track to make the move to Hendrick Motorsports.

Towards the end of Junior’s partnership with Teresa, it did seem as though the team lacked the resources to keep up with the megateams. Back then, it was fair to question whether DEI was able to get the job done. Fans well remember his multiple DNFs to blown engines in his last season there, including at the fall race at Richmond that sealed his fate missing the Chase.

So it was a no-brainer for a superstar who could name his price to sign on with Hendrick Motorsports. What driver wouldn’t? You can bring up the family loyalty thing, but Junior felt he could win races and championships driving for the best team, and he thought he owed that to his fans. You can’t fault an Earnhardt for desire to win.

But now, two and a half years and one win later, after Junior had a problem with a team that was either unwilling or unable to support his efforts, the problem today appears to be more with the driver. More correctly, it’s looking more and more like a problem of psychological makeup; Junior simply doesn’t seem to be cut out for high expectations.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes from a broken family, and it doesn’t take an insider to see that his relationship with his stepmother isn’t exactly idyllic. Having divorced parents myself, I can appreciate the damage that such circumstances can do to one’s self-esteem. I was 12 when my parents split; Junior was just three. I can’t positively claim that this is the reason for Junior’s introverted and sometimes apparent self-doubting nature, but it probably doesn’t help. (I also can’t conclusively say whether it also causes focus problems, but I can say that I suffer from a near-ADD level lack of focus sometimes, as my wife will gladly tell you.)

Compare Junior’s personality to Jeff Gordon’s in pre- and post-race interviews. Gordon is always polished, always even-keeled, comfortable in front of the camera. By contrast, Junior often seems at a loss for a quote, despite being a rather well-spoken sort most of the time, and looks as though he’d rather be doing anything else besides talking to a microphone. One wonders how much of both drivers’ public demeanors had to do with their childhoods. Jeff Gordon grew up in a relatively stable environment, with a stepfather who encouraged him every step of the way. Gordon wasn’t the son of a legend who was expected to be as great. Junior’s upbringing probably wasn’t nearly as turbulence-free.

If a driver has a confidence problem in front of a camera, it stands to reason that he could have similar self-doubt behind the wheel of a racecar, with a spotlight brightly focused on him no matter where he finishes.

Last season many of the poor results of the No. 88 were lapses on Junior’s part; missing his pit box not once but several times, brushing the wall running high, spinning out without being touched. This season he seems so worried about his performance that at times when his car behaves erratically he becomes overly cautious, trying to avoid another DNF. At Atlanta this year, he thought he had a loose wheel. Then at Dover he believed he had a steering problem and the team lost seven laps figuring out that he didn’t, after which he began to turn laps close to the leaders. Both times Junior claimed the track can make a driver feel as though he has such problems. Maybe, but he’s won at both tracks…he should know that.

This doesn’t sound like a driver who is confident and focused.

If Junior needs a new crew chief, it’s not because Lance McGrew lacks any skill setting up a car or making mid-race adjustments. It would be because the driver’s somewhat fragile ego needs a thick-skinned guy on the pit box who knows how to motivate his driver and keep him zeroed in to the task at hand. With no disrespect meant to Lance McGrew, I don’t think he’s that guy. Junior might do well with a Steve Addington type of personality who can let his driver rant and then get him back in the game. Someone who tells his driver to forget what everyone else thinks and race his racecar like everyone knows he can.

But that isn’t a responsibility of a crew chief. And we can try playing sociologist to explain what’s gone wrong, but once the green flag drops there are no excuses. No one is given positions on the track because they had a tough childhood. No matter how difficult it is to run well below expectations with seemingly the whole universe watching, Junior’s job this Sunday night is to find the focus he needs and keep it for 600 miles.

If Earnhardt Jr. is able to devote 100% of his attention to running a mistake-free race every week, at least he won’t have as many really bad finishes stacked up along the occasional merely bad ones. A driver who can do that in Hendrick equipment should at least be able to make the Chase.

Easier said than done, though. To improve on the racetrack, more than anything else, Junior is going to have to learn how to deal with the pressure.

The question is whether he can.

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05/28/2010 01:42 AM

I don’t doubt that there are multiple issues effecting Jr., but a theory I came up with a while ago, and I’ve yet to hear anyone ever bring it up, is that the CoT really favors drivers who grew up racing dirt tracks.

If you look at the guys that have done good with the CoT, almost all of them grew up racing dirt. Even drivers like Bowyer, who only has 2 career wins, has risen to the top (not counting RCR’s terrible season last year).

On the other hand, look at the guys that are struggling, and they grew up racing asphalt only. Junior being a prime example.

The CoT appears that it needs to be set up super loose in order to go fast. Mark Martin was quoted as saying that he had no idea how loose Jeff Gordon’s setups were, until he joined Hendrick, because Gordon never looks like he is loose all the time… only Kyle Bush does that. :)

It’s just a theory, but for the most part, it seems fairly sound. I wish someone more “in-the-know” would dig deeper into this.

05/28/2010 02:51 AM

I have often wondered if the wreck in the Corvette at Sears Point did not scared the drive out of Jr. If you look at his numbers for the year of that wreck and before then look at the number for the years following, you will see a MAJOR change in wins and top 5’s & 10’s. Yes I know since the wreck he has changed teams and crew chiefs. Here are the numbers
thru 2004
183 starts
15 wins
52 top 5’s
79 top 10’s

since 2005
191 starts
3 wins
37 top 5’s
66 top 10’s

Not a fan since he joined Hendrick’s, just get tired of people saying he has NO TALENT.

19-23 wins
Ricky Rudd, T. Labonte, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, B. Labonte, Benny Parsons, and Buddy Baker

Tied at 18 wins
Harry Gant, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Geoff Bodine, and Neil Bonnett

12-17 wins
Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Ryan Newman.

05/28/2010 08:34 AM

I think JR has just lost the interest in racing, It seems like it is the last place he wants to be. He has no drive inside him each week and is shows.

05/28/2010 09:42 AM

What’s wrong with Jr.?

Ok, first, He’s a good race car driver. Not a great race car driver.

Second, Focus. Teresa Earhnardt had it right and got crucified for it.

Stephen HOOD
05/28/2010 09:53 AM

Couple of things:
1. McGrew—never won a Sprint Cup race as a crew chief. When Junior runs ten races with a Sprint Cup winning crew chief on the box, I’ll start blaming Junior.
2. COT—look at the winners since the roll out of the COT. Most of the wins are isolated between 5 or 6 drivers with the occasional one off by some others. Both Junior and Edwards have dropped out of contention as the COT has evolved (post 2008). Coupled with the testing ban, the evolving COT has benefited the skill sets of a few (Bussch/Busch/Johnson/Hamlin/Martin) while leaving some of the sports biggest names and solid drivers looking like sophomores (Earnhardt, Edwards, Gordon). I know Gordon seems to have caught fire, but he still hasn’t crossed the start/finish line first in a long while. Maybe Gordon finally understands the car, whereas the learning curve of Junior and Edwards are still works in progress.
3. I call BS on Junior doesn’t want to win. I think ADD makes more sense and being a big fish in a pond full of big fish at HMS has to challenge his mental toughness. I don’t doubt that there are some psychological challenges and family system issues that plague Earnhardt. How could they not? I think Junior is a proven driver that is plagued by a number of factors in and out of his control. He may never win again, but my guess is that he’ll be back in contention before too long.

05/28/2010 11:25 AM

I think the Earnhardt/McGrew combo will work eventually… they just haven’t had that “click” moment yet. If you listen to interviews of Robbie Loomis talking about taking over for Evernham on the #24, he said they ran up and down until about midway through the 2000 season when something just clicked and they took off. That is what McGrew/Jr need.. will it happen? Only time will tell.

05/28/2010 11:30 AM

has anyone ever noticed how hammond and mcreynolds can watch a car on the track and see whats its doing and pretty much say what it needs and low and behold thats the adjustments the crew made during the pit stop.So maybe mcgrew needs to turn on his tv if he needs feedback or maybe ask jr what 4 basketballs mean.

05/28/2010 12:51 PM

I also am no longer a Jr Fan since he (Idiotically IMHO)joined HMS.

Truth be told Jr. will NEVER be a consistant winner under the HMS banner. Sure he’ll be up and down and come close a few times but NEVER consistantly be good at HMS.
I honestly believe that even though Ricky boy acts like he loves Jr and smiles as he puts his arm around him in public photo ops that Hendrick wants nothing more than for Jr. to fail.

Why? He is jealous of and hated Dale Sr.for being the face of NASCAR for so long and will do ANYTHING to bring down the Earnhardt name! Including putting Jr in subpar equipt and saddling him with lesser crews while saying all along he’s trying to help and just cant figure out what is wrong.

Jr’s got the fan base, the name and brings in lots of $$ to Hendrick in souvenier sales and probably will for a very long time.
However, Im posiitve that in private ol Ricky boy smiles and laughs as Jr does poorly while he pretends to support him publicly.

The last thing Hendrick wants is an Earnhardt winning another Championship.

No..he wants HIS guys JG and JJ in the spotlight as he smiles that crap eating smile and pretends to help and support Jr to his face.

But …behind his back he rubs his hands, smiles and laughs as he ruins the Earnhardt legacy.

Whata freakin slimebag!!

I’d be willing to bet that had Jr gone to Gibbs or Chldress he’d be winning… a lot!

The Devil is hard to see when he pretends to be your friend Jr.
The faster you leave HMS the better you’ll be and will clearly see “Mr” Hendrick for what he really is.

05/28/2010 01:21 PM

“…Hendrick wants nothing more than for Jr. to fail.” That’s one of the silliest things I think I have ever heard. Can we say paranoid?

Moving on…I think this is one of the best articles about Jr I’ve ever read. I don’t think he lacks motivation; I think he lacks some confidence, and the level of pressure that he must feel constantly would be enough to cause anyone to make mistakes from time to time! Honestly, if he was just some random driver whose last name wasn’t Earnhardt and he didn’t have the high expectations that go along with that name, he would probably be doing better than he is.

05/28/2010 02:09 PM

Jr had his best percentage of wins on restrictor plate tracks.
DEI has great restrictor plate engines. Hendrick does not. DEI is where he should have stayed, he it a good restristor plate racer and then a short track racer. He probably would have more wins if he stayed.

05/28/2010 02:18 PM

Maybe Junior is putting too much pressure on himself when he gets in the car. Then when he gets in front of the camera he feels the need to explain himself and gets real uncomfortable, as he does look often. Nothing a hot streak can’t cure, but he’s gotta get some wins and top fives first.
That indeed would be considered all psychological.

05/28/2010 03:08 PM

Tony Stewarts’ parents also divorced when he was young . Didn’t seem to have a big effect on Tonys’ self confidence .
Divorce is very hard on children of any age . But divorce , or anything else in Dale Jrs. life , isn’t the cause of him not winning races . When Dale JR. started out , he had his father calling the shots with car construction , set-ups , and to a point , race strategy for him . When he no longer had that hand guiding him , he was lost .
Lets just all stop the goofy analizing of Dale Jrs. problems and find something meaningfull to talk about .

Lane Hunter
05/28/2010 03:15 PM

I’ve felt for awhile that Jr. should go away for some time. Take a year off from the sport. He should travel the world, go on a walkabout, lose himself and find himself. Maybe he could gain some perspective and realize that what he does, who he is and what everyone else expects from him doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things.

Just a thought.

Oh, and by the way can you imagine what that would be like for the fans when he came back after being gone for a full season. It would be amazing.

05/28/2010 04:23 PM

Never ending excuses for JR. Blu … how much AMP did you chug this morning? Have a few BUD’S and settle. James… HMS never wins on plate track? Huh? Do some research and see who did all the winning in plate races from 2004 until the COT came in full time in 2008.

05/28/2010 06:18 PM

I agree with Blu. I had hoped that with all of the money that Jr. brings into HMS, that HMS would get Addington for him. But I read that HMS is broke & all of the HMS employees had to take a pay cut. Rick got his money from his car dealerships. When the economy dropped Rick said that his dealerships didn’t just slow down, they fell off a cliff. Kellogg’s left, DuPont is leaving, etc.. So now, Jr. is bringing in the money to pay the HMS employees. It must stick in Rick’s craw to have to depend on the name of Earnhardt to keep his racing going & making the payroll. Rick can’t let Jr. go. So it now falls on Jr.’s shoulders to keep HMS going. What I find odd is that at Richmond after Jr. was 3 laps down, after 2 missed wave arounds & air was let out of his left rear tire, cc does not know his right from his left, which is never to be done, they fixed his car toward the end of the race & he ran great 3 laps down, with the leaders. But then at Darlington, when he got back on the lead lap from 2 laps down, they can’t fix his car so he can run well…to save their souls…?!? He was going forward & then just started sinking, again. This same scenario has happened many times. Why does this pattern repeat itself over and over…? until Dover, I read somewhere that the cc said that he did not figure the wing to spoiler would make much of a difference. If they get the car fixed to where he can drive it, like the end of Richmond, it is too late to matter. If he is on the lead lap, they can’t get it running well…? 86 races down & 96 to go.

05/28/2010 09:01 PM

I work with kids diagnosed with ADD, and this is not something that you just “get” all of a sudden. Seeing that Jr didn’t seem to have attention problems when he won his 18 races, I just can’t see ADD being the excuse/answer. Like someone said, if there was a kid that had a tough childhood, it was Tony Stewart. His parents threw him out of the house when he was 18, he had to scrape for himself, and there have been numerous reports that Tony’s dad was abusive. But that sure hasn’t stopped Stewart from being a champion. There are millions of kids who are victims of divorce and they do just fine. I just think that Jr’s heart isn’t in it anymore. He just seems happy messing around with his friends, playing on is iRacing team and leaving a lot of responsibility for his life in the hands of his sister. In a vast majority of interviews that Jr does, it seems as if it has to be all FUN for Jr. He just seems to be all about the fun, and since losing is not fun, Jr just zones out. I sure wish they could talk Pops Eury to come back and chief Jr’s car for the rest of the season. After all, most of Jr’s wins did come with Tony Sr on the pit box.

05/29/2010 02:07 PM

Kevin, think whatever you want but thats my thought and my opinion. It sure does explain why the 88 is always the 1 HMS car thats always not up to par with the others. Not much else does IMHO.

BTW Overra88ted, I dont like nor would I EVER drink AMP.

Marybeth, THANK YOU for at least considering that there is something rotten with Ricky boy and HMS.

Im telling you Hendrick was extremely jealous of Dale Sr. before his unfortunate death and of team owner Richard Childress, getting the wins, a HUGE fanbase and all the attention as the face of NASCAR.
While his team was an also ran, competitive but not up to par with RCR status (at the time).

That man would love NOTHING more than to see an Earnhardt fail and him do well.It would finally elevate him to (in his mind anyways)his proper status.

The man is just evil!

05/29/2010 03:18 PM

Junior should run a different series for a year. Remove the legacy hanging over his head, and train on a different kind of car. Indycar runs a lot of ovals, which he knows. Rolex is part of NASCAR, who probably won’t let him go anywhere else. But they run road courses. Maybe he should run the Whelan series or Canadian Tire or NASCAR Corona

M.B. Voelker
05/29/2010 05:03 PM

IMO, Jr. has never been quite the same since that fiery sportscar wreck.

05/29/2010 06:50 PM

@ Blu: I won’t disagree that Rick Hendrick is a shady character. He WAS convicted of extortion, and suddenly developed leukemia during his period of house arrest. But it is a little silly to claim that HMS was an also-ran compared to RCR up until Dale’s tragic death. RCR won their last championship in 1994. HMS won championships in ’95, ’96, ’97, & ’98. That’s 4 of 6 for the years between RCR’s last championship and the tragic begining to ’01, which they also won the championship for, as well.

I think that there is disparity between the HMS teams. The #24 & #48 have one shop, the #5 & #88 a different shop.
The #25 (what the #88 was before it became the #88) was a sub-par team going back to at least the early ’90s. The last great driver that team had was Tim Richmond, everybody since then has been much ado about nothing.

Look at it this way:
1.) He drives HMS’s sub-par (historically) car
2.) (Potentially) Lingering troubles from losing his dad on-track.
3.) As WCFan points out, (potentially) Some level of fear in the car after the ‘Vette crash in Sonoma.
4.) The fact that growing up many of Jr.‘s decisions were made for him. His dad told him what he would do if he wanted to race. Now everybody asks Jr. what he wants to do.
5.) The COT chassis is something he has never been able to get his head around.
6.) His entire life and existence is examined through a microscope.
7.) He simply does not have the talent, drive, motivation, and desire his father did.
Before people claim that I am saying Jr. has NO racing talent, I am just saying that he doesn’t have the amount of talent his dad had, very few drivers in any discipline do.

All of these circumstances at one time create racing’s version of a black hole and Jr. can’t escape the situation.

05/31/2010 07:01 AM

a few years ago it was suggested that jr participate in the sports psychological program that there is at hendrick. all the other hendrick drivers do, including gordon and johnson. jr’s response “i don’t need no psychologist”. he instantly shot it down.

look at jr pre-race, his body language is negative, he looks as if he doesn’t want to be there. he lives in a fish bowl, and that’s a part of the sport.

i’ve said all along he needs to get his head straight. his relationship with his father, sister, step-mother, peers. his personal life (girlfriend amy), his isolation. heck he lives on a compound that he builds, tears down, rebuilds. that sports car crash that almost killed him after his father’s death also plays a factor in his drive and desire to race.

he’s in his mid-thirties and at times, looks like he yearns for his twenties. i think he had too much fame too early in his career, and now he can’t deal with the pitfalls.

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