I distinctly recall standing in the media center, at Dover International Speedway, nearly two years ago. On a humid Friday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just secured his first pole position in months ….. and the first such position since announcing the split from the organization his father created.
I looked him in the eye and asked if his dominating effort was “luck” or evidence the team might be turning around. He didn’t hesitate to throw his daddy’s company under the bus (in fact he said, “good question”), citing rain as a factor in holding other teams from tinkering with setups.
His direct response was “we just came out and threw something at the wall to see if it would stick ….. this is what you do when you’re not working with top-notch technology.” At that point, I knew there wouldn’t be a reconciliation.
Initially, I supported and wholeheartedly understood Earnhardt’s plight. His stepmother, Teresa, controls Dale Earnhardt Inc. (which is now Earnhardt/Ganassi) and she’s dead set on running the joint into the ground. None of their teams are competitive.
Fast forward a few months and Dale Earnhardt Jr. married himself to Rick Hendrick’s organization. They stood before hundreds of reporters and ESPN even carried the press conference. Junior wanted to WIN and Hendrick wanted him to WIN. It was a match made in heaven ….. so we thought.
To his credit, Hendrick laid down the “law of excellence” that exists within his organization. He stables the two best teams in the sport ….. and he employs both the most dominant and credentialed drivers in NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson owns 3 straight championships and Jeff Gordon owns more titles (4) and wins (81) than any other active driver.
When you’re a teammate of Johnson and Gordon, you’ve gotta win, and Hendrick made that very clear …..
Step into today and it’s sobering to see Earnhardt has secured a single win in his 42 races as a member of Hendrick Motorsports. That record of achievement, or non-achievement will not get it done. And, the whispers are starting to circulate.
On Sunday, Rick Hendrick made it very clear – DALE EARNHARDT JR. IS ON STABLE GROUND. However, Earnhardt’s crew chief (and cousin), Tony Eury, is on the hot seat. They’ll remain together – for now. But, they need to turn this thing around or Eury will be joining the millions of unemployed souls across this nation.
The gauntlet of excellence that exists at Hendrick is no secret within the racing community – the pressure to win is every bit as great as being manager of the New York Yankees or head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. And, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is failing to meet these expectations.
He’s safe – for now. In fact, he’s probably safe for a few years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a “cash cow” and his marketability cannot be ignored. He owns roughly 60% of NASCAR’s fan base and corporate advertisement loves him ….. even in this economy. Even if he isn’t winning, he’s paying MANY of the bills at Hendrick, and this is vital.
That said, the enormous legion of fans and sponsors want to see the #88 in victory lane. They’re paying to see it. Honestly, I think Earnhardt has the talent to put the machine there on a consistent basis. And, my definition of “consistent” equates to about 5 wins, per year.
Nope, he’s not Jimmie Johnson. And, he’s definitely not Jeff Gordon. In fact, Jimmie Johnson – with all due respect to his hot streak – is subordinate to Gordon in sheer talent. But, I don’t think Rick Hendrick is looking for Gordon’s contemporary; that’s an awful lot to ask.
There will come a day when Rick Hendrick forces Junior into a corner – and it might be coming sooner, rather than later. And, it most certainly will begin with Eury – who made the pilgrimage to Hendrick Motorsports, with his little cousin. If Hendrick zeroes in on a new crew chief candidate (ie – stealing a competitor) within the next year, Eury will probably be primed for an exit interview.
If Hendrick replaces Eury with a signal caller of his choosing, there will be no remaining excuses and he knows this. At some point, the pressure must rest squarely on Junior’s shoulders. He’s gotta win and compete for championships.
I have a sneaky suspicion this is the best we’ll see from the embattled, but “rock-star” status’ driver. This is Dale Earnhardt Jr . – for better or worse. I suppose an occasional win and some consistent finishes would be acceptable just about anywhere, except at Hendrick Motorsports.
Perhaps, Junior was really onto something, at Dover. Heck, just throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. Who would’ve ever thought that 16 months into this new marriage, an “old” gameplan might just work …..
**WNST is going to Richmond Internal Raceway and you’re invited. Enjoy the comforts of a full-service motorcoach, a nice grandstand seat and a day at RIR. The price is just $99, per person. Check WNST.net for more details ……