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, zero wins, seven top fives, 12 top 10s, 16th in points, 433 laps led.
High Point: To borrow a phrase from the old – and lamented – RPM2Night program, 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, 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, then slid from 13th in the standings to 16th 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 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 16th.
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 HMS 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 Jeff Gordon and Jimmie 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 – 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 Gordon and Johnson failed to ignite the public at large’s interest – a battle between 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 HMS.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: D (although in light of the number change… maybe a DD)