The Frontstretch: Driver Review : Dale Earnhardt, Jr. by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday December 6, 2007

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Driver Review : Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday December 6, 2007


Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
2007 Ride: No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolet
2007 Primary Sponsor: Budweiser
2007 Owner: Teresa Earnhardt
2007 Crew Chief: Tony Eury, Jr. (Feb. – Oct.); Tony Gibson (Oct. – Nov.)

2007 Stats: 36 Starts, 0 Wins, 7 Top 5s, 12 Top 10s, 16th in points, 433 laps led.

High Point: To borrow a phrase from the old – and lamented – RPM2Night program, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. remains popular despite a lackluster season that played out in graphic detail. With all the talk about the man, the uninitiated NASCAR fan might think he was contending for race wins and the title every week.

They'd be sadly mistaken.

It's tough to find a bright spot in a season full of difficult headlines; but if there was indeed one for the Budweiser Chevy, it might have been the Pocono race in August. The No. 8 car started the race so bad, Earnhardt literally sounded like he was ready to park it and leave the track early in the event. Given the driver's level of consternation, the team made a bold decision to take extra time to change the rear shocks on the car. The move paid off in spades; with his car no longer "evil," Junior drove to a hard-fought second place finish – proving that given the right equipment, he can still live up to the hype.

Low Point: All of 2007. From the git-go, the storylines surrounding Junior had to do with next year, not this one. Earnhardt made it clear he wasn't happy with his situation back in January; he wanted a controlling interest in DEI, the team his father started to give Junior a chance to shine. At the same time, Earnhardt's stepmother made it clear she had no interest in surrendering control to the team her late husband's will bequeathed her. While Teresa remained largely in seclusion, the whole ugly mess played out on the front pages, with Junior often looking like a deer caught in the headlights of an 18-wheeler. By May, the announcement everyone expected became reality – at the end of ’07, the two were headed towards divorce.

Earnhardt's announcement he'd leave the family team might have been the headline of the year in a moribund season of Cup racing – were it not for where he landed. Against all odds, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wound up signing a contract to drive for none other than Rick Hendrick in 2008. Earnhardt loyalists were dismayed. Hendrick Motorsports was the evil empire: How could Luke Skywalker, the keeper of the Earnhardt flame, wind up driving for Darth Vader and crew? The headlines were kept at a white hot fury, as it was announced Teresa would not relinquish rights to the No. 8, and Budweiser would not be back as Junior's sponsor. Change was in the air, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth; the Earnhardt faithful struggled to come to grips with a new reality.

On the track, things were even uglier. Earnhardt failed to finish nine races, six of those DNFs caused by failed engines after competitive runs. The faithful zealots seemed certain that Teresa her very own self assembled those engines and left bolts loose just to screw with her stepson. Reality might not be so colorful; but at the end of the day, the stats speak for themselves. Earnhardt failed to make the Chase, and then slid from thirteenth in the standings to sixteenth in the final few races – killing any chance of ending his tenure with DEI on a positive note.

Summary: For any driver looking to advance his career, let 2007 serve as a warning: Take care of the off-track wrangling during the off-season. While Dale Earnhardt, Jr. might have dominated the headlines in the paper, his finishes in actual races were barely worth a footnote. It's easy to excuse him by saying he wasn't given the equipment to win; but the fact remains that Martin Truex, Jr. – driving for a lesser-funded team out of the DEI stables – did win a race, running more competitively than Junior did most of the year. To his credit, Earnhardt usually stuck to the high road during a trying season; at one point, he even asked the press to back off Teresa. But at the end of the day, a measure of champions isn't the class you show but the brass you hoist over your head in Victory Lane. It's now been a year and a half since NASCAR's most visible driver actually won a race. In an odd statistic, Junior led just 11 laps less this year than he did in ’06 – but last year he ended up fifth in the points, and this year he wound up sixteenth.

2008 Outlook: There are no more excuses. It's time for Earnhardt to show if he's the new Intimidator – or an Imitator. Starting at Daytona, Earnhardt will be driving for the hottest team on the circuit, a team in Hendrick Motorsports that incidentally won half of the Cup races this season. Given that sort of equipment, it seems likely that Earnhardt will finally live up to the hype and put some checkmarks in the win column. If not, the most diehard Earnhardt loyalists will claim that Gordon and Johnson are getting the good stuff, while the No. 88 team gets leftovers. But the more rational segment of fans will take Earnhardt's failure to perform as evidence that – despite all the hype – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a journeyman driver, landed in the high profile seat of a well-funded car because of his last name and not his abilities. As desperately as Junior needs to win some races at this juncture in his career, NASCAR needs even more desperately for the son of his famous father – the most recognized name in the sport – to grab some trophies and eliminate the disparity between hype and reality. When Earnhardt runs poorly and misses the Chase, there’s no disputing that across the country, fans leave the grandstands and click the remote to Off. A title battle between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson failed to ignite the public at large's interest – a battle between Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and anyone else would likely be a different story altogether.

As for a prediction, it's my prognosis that the Hendrick-Earnhardt pairing will yield good results; however, I remain concerned that there may be too many roosters in the henhouse at Hendrick Motorsports.

2006 Grade: A-.
2007 Grade: D. (although in light of the number change … maybe a DD)

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©2000 - 2008 Matt McLaughlin and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

L Christian
12/07/2007 10:40 AM

Matt as usual you pull no punches. Jr can drive, the fact that Rick hired him is proof of that. Rick isn’t drawn into the hype. Yes Jr had a very bad year. Lets remember Jeff Gordons divorce years. It had a negative effect on Jeff’s driving ability. All this turmoil at DEI has had it’s effect on Jr as well. Martin Truex has had no such turmoil to deal with. Jr will do well at Hendrick, it may not be a magic bullet out of the box type of thing, but by seasons end in 08 people will once again KNOW of Jr’s ability as a great driver. Keep it coming Matt. Take care

12/07/2007 11:34 AM

Good article, thanks. I think people will always underestimate Junior’s driving ability. I think he’s a good driver who is capable of being a great driver. Most of his problems are mental ( related to, in spite of his comments to the contrary, his own self-doubt). Junior can take the pressure, and now he’ll finally have the owner/mentor he’s so desperately missed over the past 7 years. Time will tell how it all pans out, but I agree that he’ll have good results at HMS.

William T.
12/07/2007 01:27 PM

Junior’s Driving ability? Are you serious?!? the only reason Hendrick wanted him was for $$$ that he would bring in….

If Jr were such a good driver, why did he blow so many engines this year?

I already know everyone’s excuse….“because he was getting the crappy equipment while Truex was getting all the good stuff”

Keep dreaming….he got the same stuff, it was just user error

ray sowers
12/07/2007 01:41 PM

I/belive dale jr will stepup an show me an the rest of his fans go jr.

Dan C
12/07/2007 04:08 PM

William T you are a ass

True Fan
12/07/2007 04:52 PM

I’ll give it to Jr. with all the off track distractions , f***ed up engines and drama, homeboy got to the front at times and ran his heart out. One more thing driving the Busch car ,(Kyle) that is , it showed true uninhibited love for racing. Way to go JR. u got balls!

True Fan
12/07/2007 04:59 PM

Just to make it clear on my above comment,I was refering to the race that Jr. finished for HMS.

12/07/2007 06:00 PM

Was never a JR. fan. But when he decided to leave DEI I applauded. To me, it showed he was becoming his own man.

And I really see no reason why Teresa didn’t work out a deal to give him the number 8. It’s just a number right? Can you imagine the good press if she had just GIVEN him the number? But she didn’t, and to me, it appears to be spite.

Question: Was it Jr. who wanted to be a “rock star” or was it that he was being pushed to be a “rock star” who sold LOTS of items for DEI?

Oh, and JR. wasn’t the only DEI driver to lose an engine.

I truly hope Jr. wins the championship next year.

But watch out….

Kyle Bush can DRIVE a damn race car!

Both are gonna be fired up next year but I’d say Kyle will be MORE ticked off about being more or less dumped for the popular Jr.

12/07/2007 08:45 PM

I’m not sure I worry about too many roosters at the HMS henhouse. Rick Hendricks has emphasized that the team and the big picture is the most important thing. Jr is friends with Casey which is good, and in their most recent testing, they have discovered that Jr has a similar driving style to JJ.

I hope that Jr is not spending too much time in his Nationwide shop and can consentrate on Cup. I read that HMS transferred about 30 employees to Jr’s shop and are working on those cars. I think 08 will be a good year for Jr and I sure wish him well.

12/07/2007 09:03 PM

First and foremost, I was a #3 fan way before it was cool to watch NASCAR. Naturally, I migrated to the 8 after Daytona, 2001. I think a lot of folks needed a place to go. Junior struggled for a while, then won several races. Now, he has had 2 bad seasons in 3 years. I watch Junior mature as a driver with some reservation. While he at times shows strength and drives up front, he seems at other times to be content to run in the pack. I am not sure I understand all this rim riding he does, it seems like he learned a few bad tricks from Michael Waltrip. I hope that his transition to HMS is smooth and he wins many championships. We do not know. The future will tell. I certainly do not listen to all these Monday Morning quarterbacks who don’t know a carburator from a foul ball.

Good luck, Junior.

True Fan
12/07/2007 11:04 PM

First and for most my real name is Derrick a.k.a. , True Fan , Disapointed , Not so disapointed , amongst other aliases Iv’e used to get the attention of the N.A.S.C.A.R community. For the record , I have been intrigued by N.A.S.C.A.R for about 8 seasons now. That being said I must admit I did not approach the sport as a fan but Iv’e become one. I first gained interest in the sport when I moved back down south from D.C. to South Carolina where I and my parents were born in 1990 something, here I would listen to my uncle in-law rant and rave about FORD and CHEVY etc. I found myself learning to appreciate American automobiles more from all those debates. Later I was watching a commercial for a reeses candybar that I enjoyed because it tasted good and I noticed it was for N.A.S.C.A.R Busch driver Kevin Harvick. Although I knew nothing at the time about the sport aside from what I heard my step uncle and his family rant and rave about , I wanted in. Years later after gaining more interest in the sport I heard some guys having a heated debate about their favorite drivers , which included # 24,#20 and of course #3. I’ll never forget how passionate they were , this was in 2001 a day before Daytona. This is where it got interesting. I had never took the time with all my curiosity to watch a race. Sadly; we all know to well what happened that day in february. Not knowing how or what to feel, being a virgin to the sport, I sat up all night trying to sort my feelings. I remember vividly how much this tremendously affected every race fan around me. What I think about most of all is how each mourning fan was able to put rivalry aside and just be racing fans. I thought that I would just throw that out there to say that after all is said and done concearning Gordon,JR.,STEWART etc. Let’s not forget we are racing fans. LOVE YOU ALL (MERRY CHRISTMAS!)

12/08/2007 11:18 AM

True Fan Said:

I first gained interest in the sport when I moved back down south from D.C. to South Carolina where I and my parents were born in 1990 something…

Wow, you ARE southern. Your parents are your younger siblings?

Sorry, couldn’t pass that up.

12/08/2007 01:30 PM

Based on his on-track performance, it’s fair to say that Little E is not a superstar. But “journeyman?”

Come on, Matt. That’s a little harsh.

Look at the all-time win list:

Of the full-time, active drivers, Lilly is tied for fifth with Kurt Busch with 17 wins.

June Bug has won on super-speedways, mile-and-a-half cookie cutters, and short tracks.

So far, he’s no Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson. But a guy with seventeen Cup wins is no journeyman.

Debbi Willis
12/08/2007 09:52 PM

Matt, Excellent summation of the saga of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Definitely on target on pretty much all points as I believe Jr will be under a tremendous amount of personal pressure as well as fan and media pressure to perform next year.

Very good read!

12/08/2007 10:51 PM

Derrick/Truefan said: “Let’s not forget we are racing fans.” That’s it in a nutshell Derrick, at the end of the day each of us, while we may have our personal favorites, are race fans at heart. Happy Holidays to all.
12/09/2007 05:52 PM

i am a true, blue, fan of jr“s.have been since he started racing in myrtle beach.i am really glad he left, t.e.i, but at first i was so disappointed, he went to a owener and teams, that i do not like!!! but, i am a jr. fan ,so i will change my colors and still be a jr. fan, but, never a hendrick fan!! i thing most of jr“s fans feel the same way. i hope he does great in 08”, but if not i will still be a no.#1 fan, always!!!!