From NASCAR.com's "The Pressure Cooker," and the Bristol Herald Courier's "Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Fans Search for Answers As Their Hero Sputters," the headlines scream of Earnhardt's struggles so far in this 2009 Cup season. Even the Los Angeles Times has gotten into the act with a recent story titled "Dale Earnhardt Jr. Defends His Crew Chief Tony Eury."
The talk show lines, particularly on the Sirius and XM Satellite NASCAR channels, are burning up with opinions on what is ailing Junior. Fans are lining up in droves to advocate for changes in Junior's team, particularly for the sacrifice of his cousin and crew chief Tony Eury.
So, what is wrong with Earnhardt?
Is it that he just does not want it badly enough? Is it his crew chief? Is there too much pressure on this one driver's shoulders?
The desire does not seem to be the problem. Just look at the face and in the eyes of this driver and team and anyone can see how desperately they want to succeed and meet everyone's expectations, including their own.
Or is it that Earnhardt is just not as good a driver as his most famous father Dale Earnhardt Sr. or his storied grandfather Ralph Earnhardt? That does not seem to be the case either, as Earnhardt Jr. has won races and even two Nationwide series championships in 1998 and 1999.
Earnhardt cannot blame his lack of success on his equipment, as he did in the days of driving for his step-mother Theresa and his family company Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Just last year, he joined one of the most successful teams in NASCAR with Hendrick Motorsports and rubs elbows daily with multiple-time champions the likes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
And yet, Earnhardt Jr. still cannot seem to succeed and excel in the way he, and his fans, expect. This past week at Bristol Motor Speedway, he qualified a dismal 35th and finished an even sadder 14th, having used the Lucky Dog several times just to stay on the lead lap.
Earnhardt is currently 19th in the Championship points position. And if the Chase were decided today, he would not even be in the field.
So, again, what on earth is going on with Earnhardt Jr.?
While the answers to this question are never easy and the solutions even more complicated, there is one thing that Earnhardt must master in order to overcome his struggles and to succeed: discipline.
There are many aspects of discipline that he must master in order to raise himself and his team to championship contention. First, he must master the art of self-discipline and focus.
Just take one look at Earnhardt Jr.'s official Web site, and you will see that this is an individual that is driven to distraction. Half of his Web site is devoted to racing, and the other to general news, including updates on his bar Whiskey River, his team JR Motorsports, his music endeavors, his commercials—the list goes on and on.
It is no wonder that this driver cannot achieve any kind of success on the race track when he has a myriad of distractions demanding his time and attention. Earnhardt needs to clear his life of these other endeavors, disciplining himself to fully focus on his performance in the car and at each and every race track.
Earnhardt also needs to master the discipline of communication. This is particularly critical with his crew chief and his team.
All too frequently, he seems to be either blathering on and on during the race or remaining eerily silent. He needs to work on his communication skills so that he can accurately share what is going on with his race car.
On the flip side, Earnhardt also needs to listen. Again, this skill is particularly pertinent when it comes to his crew chief. In the words of a popular rock song, Earnhardt literally should discipline himself to just: "shut up and drive."
Another discipline skill in this same vein is the discipline of boundaries and roles. Instead of being the one to dictate changes on his car, Earnhardt needs to respect that he is the driver and Eury Jr. is the crew chief.
As the pitcher in the movie Bull Durham had to learn respect for the strategic pitch calling of his catcher, Earnhardt must learn to sit back, trust his natural driving talents, and leave the thinking to his crew chief and primary race strategist.
Earnhardt also needs learn to let go. Again, all too often, he seems to concentrate on dictating how to get the car just right so that he can drive it effectively and comfortably.
Instead, he must let go of the notion of comfort in the car. He must accept that the Car of Tomorrow will never be perfect.
Since it will always be challenging to drive, Earnhardt must let go of trying to achieve car perfection and instead strive for driver perfection.
Earnhardt must also address the issue of reality. Although so many other Cup drivers are already incorporating a physical fitness routine into their race preparation regimen, Earnhardt continues to resist this, saying he is never tired in the car or after a race.
He is missing the point.
Exercise is not just about physical fitness, it is instead about disciplining your mind as well as your body.
And if he is indeed in the pressure cooker, there is no better way for him to relieve some of his massive stress than through the discipline of a daily exercise routine.
Finally, Earnhardt must learn from his mistakes. He has the best and the brightest all around him in his teammates and team owner.
Instead of spending time on his various other endeavors, Earnhardt should take the most disciplined approach of all: going "back to school."
There is no doubt that, until Earnhardt Jr.'s performance on the track improves and moves to the excellence that he can most certainly achieve, the fans throughout Junior Nation will continue to debate amongst themselves not only what is wrong with him, but what he needs to change.
Yet it is all so simple. With mastery of the art of discipline, whether it's focus, communication, listening, or learning, there is no doubt that Earnhardt can, and will, achieve the greatness that is rightfully his and the last name of Earnhardt a proud tradition.