NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 NASCAR Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2009 Ride: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2009 Primary Sponsors: National Guard, AMP Energy Drink
2009 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2009 Crew Chiefs: Tony Eury Jr., Lance McGrew
2009 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s, 0 poles, 25th in points

High Point: Give me a minute… I’ll think of something. Seriously, there weren’t a lot of high points for Junior in what was the worst year of his Sprint Cup Series career. He did finish second at Talladega in April and led 41 laps at Kansas in the fall before succumbing to engine problems. What makes that performance so important is that it is indicative of the improvements that began to show in the team with new crew chief Lance McGrew at the helm. But really, 25th with an average finish of 23.2 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a Hendrick Motorsports car. There weren’t many high points in this season.

Low Point: This one is a whole lot easier, although now there might be too many to choose from. One thing, however, does stand out as the lowest of the low. The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May was just ugly. It was the last race with Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief, and it’s not hard to see why. Driver and crew chief spent the entire race at each other’s throats and finished 40th with a car that didn’t seem to have anything wrong with it other than the fact that it’s two principals couldn’t seem to come to any agreement as to how to make it move forward.

That was the race and the result that finally spurred team owner Rick Hendrick, who had previously vowed to let crew chief and driver work it out on their own, to step in, make an executive decision and make a change at the helm of this team.

Summary: This was an eventful year for the No. 88 team and not at all in a good way. It became apparent that something was amiss here early in the year. Then crew chief Eury Jr. was not high on the list of many fans who questioned his abilities but Junior attempted to defend his cousin and his calls as crew chief. However, the problems continued and the relationship between crew chief and driver deteriorated right along with it until team owner Rick Hendrick had to step in and make the change after a travesty of a performance at the Memorial Day classic 600-miler in May.

Lance McGrew was called in to pick up the pieces and slowly but surely, as the cars took on more of his input, it appeared things would improve. That’s when the worst streak of bad luck any driver has likely experienced began. The team honestly showed some muscle toward the end of 2009 only to have just about every effort end with blown engines, cut tires or accidents, much of which wasn’t their doing. How bad did the bad luck get? Junior’s pit crew was involved in an accident while riding to the track in a van before the Phoenix race.

Team Ranking: 25th in points puts Earnhardt well and truly behind his three teammates who finished first, second and third in the Sprint Cup championship. Points position aside, Junior really was the fourth out of four drivers on his Hendrick Motorsports team this season.

Part of that is the fact that two of his teammates are Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and they are not your ordinary driver. Another part of that is that team owner Rick Hendrick threw the biggest part of his effort behind Junior’s other teammate Mark Martin in an effort to help Martin win the championship that has always eluded him in what is (maybe?) the waning years of his career. There just wasn’t much left over for Junior.

2010 Outlook: Rick Hendrick admits that Junior was a little overlooked in favor of his teammates in 2009 and wants to put more focus on the No. 88 team for 2010. Junior has new crew chief Lance McGrew in place and McGrew will be able to start out fresh with his own cars and setups next season so the improvements seen in 2009 when the cars had more of McGrew’s touch to them should be seen even more so in 2010.

Now, if Junior could just get a visit over the offseason from the luck fairy. He needs the offseason to get away and clear his head and get a fresh start worse than any other driver perhaps in years. This is a driver that it seems lost quite a bit of faith in both himself and his team. This is a good team and while he may not be on the level of some of his teammates, Junior is a good driver.

He’s completely capable of winning some races and making the Chase, although whether those things can happen in 2010 is partly dependent on if the driver can get his head back in the game and also on whether driver and team can start believing in each other and their abilities again.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: D
2008 Grade: C+
2009 Grade: D

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