NASCAR: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Appeal Ever Wane?

J. Conrad GuestCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2012

BRISTOL, TN - MARCH 16:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, walks in the garage area during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 16, 2012 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

It’s easy to see why NASCAR’s fanbase embraced Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the aftermath of his daddy’s death. He was young and resembled Dale Senior enough to remind us of The Intimidator. And yes, he was good-looking enough to draw swoons from the fairer gender. 

But it’s more than a decade since the NASCAR fraternity lost the elder Earnhardt, and for Junior’s career—412 Cup starts—he has but 18 wins. Granted, he also has 94 top five finishes and 159 top ten finishes, but his career, thus far, has fallen far short of fan expectation. 

Still, his popularity continues to soar, which says much about the loyalty of NASCAR fans. Whenever he takes the lead, fan approval can be heard over the roar of the engines. 

Yet he rarely is competitive and on those occasions he is, he typically beats himself—pit speed violations, overshooting his pit box, or running over air hoses. 

Fan expectations peaked when he joined Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 campaign, along with the super team of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Yet he continues to underachieve, having won but one race since joining them. 

So what gives? Why hasn’t Dale Junior enjoyed far greater success? 

My deduction was confirmed last weekend, during his post-race interview at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He led early, was the class of the field; but he faltered late and wasn’t a factor at the end. 

When he was asked what happened, he sheepishly explained that his crew failed to make the necessary adjustments to the car to keep up with the changing track conditions, admitting that he also failed to give them the necessary information to help them to help him. 

Junior always looks uncomfortable in front of the camera, looking as if he’d rather be almost anyplace else. In an era when being a spokesperson is as important as what a driver does behind the wheel, Junior stutters and generally says little of substance.

He lacks the color of Tony Stewart and the eloquence of Johnson, Gordon and many others of NASCAR’s elite drivers. 

That’s not a criticism; it’s just an observation of his personality. 

But in today’s sport, it’s imperative that a driver be able to express to his crew what his car is doing—loose in, tight off, too free in the center—so that they can adjust the car to the conditions of the track, whether a half-pound increase in tire pressure or a track bar adjustment. And Junior’s admission that he fails to do that is a criticism. 

At 37, Junior is, by NASCAR standards, still in his prime. If he is to achieve the lofty expectations of his fans, as well as his own—for any chance to get into the NASCAR Hall of Fame—he needs to step up his game in what few remaining years he has left. 

And that starts with being a better communicator with his crew chief.