NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Little E’s Troubles May Be Psychological

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 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 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.

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.

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. 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 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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