NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2010 Ride: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2010 Primary Sponsors: National Guard, AMP Energy Drink
2010 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2010 Crew Chief: Lance McGrew
2010 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 3 top fives, 8 top 10s, 1 pole, 21st in points

High Point: The 2010 season started out well, giving hope to Junior Nation. Daytona has always been a good track for Earnhardt, but it looked like the old days in the closing laps as he literally came out of nowhere steaming for the front. Although he didn’t have quite enough to get by Jamie McMurray, it was the best he’d looked in a long time as he sliced and diced his way through the field. Martinsville in the fall was also a good day. Although Earnhardt ended the day in seventh, he powered his way to the front and led for 90 laps, only two fewer than he led in the rest of the races combined.

Low Point: Once again there were way too many low points. The great second-place run at Daytona was followed by a big dose of reality with a 32nd place finish the next week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Richmond was particularly distressing. Earnhardt has won at Richmond in the past but what used to be a good track for him was anything but in 2010. He scored some of his worst finishes there with a 32nd- and 34th-place effort. Even worse, the poor finishes can be chalked up to nothing more than a team that just plain missed it by a mile.

Summary: There was great hope for 2010 with Lance McGrew on board for the whole season. The team had made progress at the end of 2009 when McGrew started to get his own cars and setups into the rotation and the team was hoping to continue that forward momentum. To be honest, the statistics are better than last year. Earnhardt’s average finish is five spots higher than 2009 and he finished four spots higher in points, but this isn’t exactly what anyone had in mind.

On paper, it’s progress, but not by much and certainly not enough to put him in the same league as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Despite some inconsistency in the first half of the year, Earnhardt flirted briefly with squeaking into the Chase before hitting a midseason slump that left him well out of contention once again. That slump marks just about the point where the driver/crew chief relationship soured beyond repair.

Team Ranking: 21st in points has him once again bringing up the rear at HMS. Teammate Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship while Jeff Gordon finished ninth and Mark Martin was the best of the rest in 13th.

2011 Outlook: Team owner Rick Hendrick is still looking to make Junior a contender again and has pulled out all the stops this time. Hendrick has changed around three of his four teams, giving Earnhardt Gordon’s team and shop. The No. 88 team will now be led by Steve Letarte and will share a shop with Johnson and Chad Knaus. Gordon gets Martin’s team and crew chief Alan Gustafson while Martin moves into Earnhardt’s old digs and takes Lance McGrew and team.

To be fair, Gordon and Martin didn’t run as well as last year either and really for Gordon it was a very off year. While the move definitely seems geared to giving Earnhardt a kickstart, there may certainly be benefits for his teammates as well. And yet, one can’t help but imagine Rick Hendrick thinking this is all there is, and if this doesn’t work, I don’t have anything else up my sleeve. Earnhardt is excited about working with Letarte but then he was excited about working with McGrew too. Time will tell if this is going to finally be the right combination.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: D
2008 Grade: C+
2009 Grade: D
2010 Grade: D+

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