NASCAR Nation's Favorite Question: Why Can't Junior Win?

M Brian LadnerCorrespondent IApril 5, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 27:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, talks to the media in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody�s Fast Pain Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway on March 27, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

I just finished reading an article and commentary about it here on Bleacher Report, in which the author pleads for the media and members of NASCAR Nation to leave Dale Earnhardt Jr. alone so that "maybe then he just might start winning races."

The bizarrely illogical argument behind it is that all the pressure from the media, from the Earnhardt name, from Hendrick Motorsports, from the fans, etc. is somehow keeping him from fulfilling his potential as the champion he is (and was) supposed to be.

The article states its thesis simply in the first paragraph: "He's doing all he can; the only thing he can do is drive the car."

I hope that's not actually the case. That statement makes it sound like all other avenues for him to do better have either been blocked or have been tried and have failed.

Drivers have (or should have) far more input and play a far greater role in a team's success or failure than simply how well they can drive the car.

Further, the author goes on to say that he was "tired of people saying he [Dale Jr.] is underachieving, he needs to win, he has no passion, no heart. (sic)"

And I can understand that frustration. I watched for years as my boy Kurt Busch struggled mightily at Penske after doing so well with Roush Racing.

But what if he isn't underachieving? What if he is showing all the passion he has? What if he is putting all of his heart into it every week?

What then?

Do we come out and then admit the seemingly obvious—maybe that just isn't enough anymore and that Junior's racing career may have peaked already, reaching the pinnacle years ago and now circling down the slow oval into oblivion?

Or do we go to the other extreme and begin placing blame on anything and everything around him for why Junior is not winning races at the pace everyone expected him to—particularly the more vocal members of Junior Nation.

This playing of "the blame game" began long ago and is not new to Junior, to Hendrick, or to the sport as a whole.

Both Hendrick and Junior have come under fire for not replacing Tony Eury Jr., just as Steve Latarte came under fire last year for leading Gordon to his first winless season since his rookie year.

But as both Hendrick and Junior have insisted time and again, the fault doesn't lie with Tony Jr. and no one is about to break the two of them up.

Before he came to HMS, the blame was laid at his "evil stepmother's" feet and her mismanagement of his talents and the resources of Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Whether that was warranted or not, who knows, but all involved seemed to agree that the move to HMS was necessary if Junior wanted to get serious about competing for championships.

As a proud member of NASCAR Nation, I don't generally have a problem with "shutting up and letting Dale Jr. just drive."

I do have a problem with being told to do so and swallowing the excuse that my not doing so is what's keeping Junior out of Victory Lane, but I have no problem actually doing it.

In fact, I've never seen anyone from the media or from NASCAR Nation standing in the way of his car, his crew chief, his team, his pit crew, around the shop at HMS, or during the races themselves.

I also have no problem with understanding that he has more pressure on him than any other driver in NASCAR. Yes, he carries with him the "burden" of the Earnhardt name and all that goes with it. 

But what is exactly is that "burden?" Notoriety? Pressure? Fame? Money? Unreasonable expectations? Popularity?

Before I go any further, I feel I should make this perfectly clear—no matter what it may sound like, I actually like Junior.

Back when I lived in Vegas in 2003-2004, I made a fair amount of money betting on him and on hometown favorite Kurt Busch at the casino sports books around town.

I bought my share of Junior-wear including a couple of T-shirts and even a twill jacket for my then-girlfriend, who was a Junior fanatic. And no, that is not why she is now an ex...

And yes, I am a fan of the Busch Brothers, but contrary to what many in Junior Nation may say and/or believe, it is not impossible to be a fan of both Kyle and Dale.

Yes, I like one more than the other, but that does not preclude me from liking or disliking other drivers based solely upon criteria that are only meaningful to me. I feel no compunction to have to explain myself when it comes to such things.

True, Junior Nation won't tell me where they hold their meetings since I came out years ago as a Busch Brothers fan, but that hasn't stopped me from pulling for him now and again just for the hell of it or for old times' sake.

To be more specific, I think Junior's image is incredibly good for the sport. He is a great ambassador for NASCAR—far better than say, my boy Kyle. 

Junior has the name recognition, the looks, the "aw shucks" charm...who amongst us wouldn't want to BE Junior if we could (or be with Junior if you're female or that's your thing), even with all the negative publicity and everything he's gone through in his life. 

I have no problem with any of that.

I have no problem even though I know that everyone goes through bad times in their lives and has bad things happen to them, to their friends, and to members of their family; one need look no further than Junior's team owner Rick Hendrick for evidence of that.

Some people have actually gone through trials and tribulations far worse than anything Junior will ever know and they don't have near the notoriety, the money, the power, and the support of an entire "Nation" that comes with being Dale Jr.

What I do have a problem with is people forgetting that Junior has chosen and continues to choose this as his profession. He seems to love to do it, he's fairly good at it, and he gets paid mad amounts of money to continue doing it.

And he knows going into each new season that the media circus is going to be more of the same as last year, and maybe worse.

Moreover, if he wakes up one morning and decides he doesn't like it anymore, retirement is always an option. How many people can say that at his age and in these troubled economic times!

It's not like he HAS to have a job to make his utility or car payments each month or he might end up taking cold showers before walking to the bus to get to work. 

And I highly doubt he woke up one morning two years ago and thought, "Thank goodness I'm going to HMS. Now maybe the media and everyone else will just leave me alone and let me drive. I'll bet I never have to face another camera, microphone, or dumb question from the media again. Now I'll do well."

And if he did wake up with that delusion, he's got far more problems than the media and NASCAR Nation bugging him with questions each week.

I'm no expert, I have no inside knowledge, and I make no claims to know what goes on inside Junior's head, between he and Tony Jr., or behind closed doors at HMS.

But to this outsider, evidence of the problem seems to have come by way of the "recommitment to racing" he has had to make over the past few months.

Junior has become such an icon and has so many other business, sponsor, and endorsement commitments, as well as personal appearances to tend to, that it seems to take away from his time and attention as a racer. 

Team owner Rick Hendrick has said, "I can tell you we've looked at everything. Dale Jr. is working out. He's changed his eating habits. We have all the folks we've got who hopefully and supposedly know what to do here focused on that team."

So Rick is doing everything he can.

Even Jeff Gordon has talked quite a bit about how he has committed himself this year to becoming a better driver and a better teammate overall by doing things he hadn't done in the past, like working out.

Seems like a reasonable approach and more importantly, it seems to be paying dividends for the four-time champion on his "drive for five."

There have been rumblings about instructions to Junior's PR people that they might want to slow down on his personal appearance schedule so Jr. could focus more on his racing.

If that's the case, the question everyone should be asking is "What the heck has he been focusing on up to now?" instead of "Why won't everybody just leave him alone?"

Nowhere in any statement by either Rick Hendrick or Jeff Gordon was the media or pressure from the fans listed as a reason for a lack of success. 

Bottom line, nobody's stopping Junior from getting out there and driving his butt off but Junior. And I do believe he is out there driving his butt off every race.

I'm sure that although he knows he can't control what's going to be said about him by the media and the fans—especially when he's not winning—he sure as heck knows that he could quiet much of the noise by winning some races. Nothing would please him more.

In the big picture, Junior wants for NOTHING. Personally, he makes more money in one year than most people in the world will see in their entire lives.

Professionally, he's not out there driving for some one-car start-up team begging for sponsorship money each week and having to qualify on time or go home.

He drives for a car owner that nearly everyone in the garage respects highly and for whom they would kill to work. Heck, Hendrick even managed to resurrect Mark Martin from retirement into a full-time schedule with an offer to come drive for him. 

And Hendrick is giving him the best of everything and going above and beyond the call of duty to try to work out whatever problems are keeping that team from doing better than it currently is.

Blaming it on the media or on NASCAR Nation for not "leaving him alone" is ridiculous.

And comparing him to guys like Burton or Martin as was done in the "open letter" referenced above is disingenuous at best; those guys are nowhere near as popular with the fans, nowhere near as well-known inside and outside of the sport, nor do they make anywhere near the money he does.

If, as is being said, he is doing ALL HE CAN and he says so, then I have no problem believing him. If that is the case, however, can we reasonably expect much more out of him, whether he is "bothered" by the media and his detractors or not?

Dale Sr. never let the press nor his detractors get to him, and he not only perfected playing the role of "bad guy" (something Junior has never had to deal with), but he also practically invented the concepts of marketing and branding deals and endorsements in NASCAR.

The argument laid out in the article mentioned and where the blame for Junior's lack of success recently rests is specious at best. 

Finally, it's not the pressure that the media, the Earnhardt name, the members of Junior and/or the NASCAR Nation, nor his teammates at HMS that matters here.

What should matter here is the pressure he puts on himself to win. People want to bash drivers like Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart for letting off steam when they don't win or when something bad happens to them during a race.

But drivers who need to "let off steam" need to do so because "steam" is generated by heat and pressure—in this case the pressure to win and succeed at what they do—drive race cars.

Maybe that's not how Junior operates or what motivates him and the comparison is unfair; I can concede that. But the point remains the same—he has within his grasp everything he should need to make it happen and it's not happening.

The "open letter" to NASCAR Nation concludes with the statement that, "Bottom line, let him race and be like any other race car driver" as if that were the panacea to all of his problems.

But as we all know, he's not like any other race car driver, and that has worked for and against him throughout his career. Like it or not, he is going to be subject to more scrutiny than other drivers, but he's known that since day one.

Along with that, however, is the knowledge that he does receive special treatment—maybe not on the track as conspiracy theorists may want to have us believe, but in life.

He owns a go-kart track on some of his land in North Carolina, one of the most popular night-clubs in all of Charlotte, and has some of the most lucrative marketing and endorsement deals of all the drivers in NASCAR.

And as they used to say about particularly charismatic actors in the past, every man wants to be him, and every woman wants to be with him.

And it doesn't just end there. As I type this, I'm watching one of the most ridiculous commercials I've ever seen for a "Dale Jr. High Octane" die-cast motorcycle. Why? I don't know.

The bottom line here is that instead of looking outward for the causes and people, places, or things to blame, the spotlight needs to be pointed inward to see what's really going on. Only then can he and his team begin to make progress. 

Hopefully, NASCAR's most popular driver can once again become one of NASCAR's most successful drivers.

That's where the the real bottom line comes in—the one that matters from a team, owner, track promoter, or NASCAR's point of view: Junior sells tickets and puts (and keeps) butts in seats. And that is something that surely couldn't hurt the sport as a whole in these trying economic times.


    Preview, Prediction for the TMNT 400

    Hendrick Motorsports logo
    Hendrick Motorsports

    Preview, Prediction for the TMNT 400

    Brendan O'Meara
    via Bleacher Report

    What Drivers Had to Say About Martinsville

    Hendrick Motorsports logo
    Hendrick Motorsports

    What Drivers Had to Say About Martinsville

    Jerry Bonkowski
    via NASCAR Talk

    Keselowski Rolls by Busch Late to Win in Kobalt 400

    Hendrick Motorsports logo
    Hendrick Motorsports

    Keselowski Rolls by Busch Late to Win in Kobalt 400

    Daniel Kramer
    via Bleacher Report

    NASCAR Reveals Start Times for 2016 Season

    Hendrick Motorsports logo
    Hendrick Motorsports

    NASCAR Reveals Start Times for 2016 Season

    via Nascar