Thus Far, 2009 Has Been Gut-Wrenching for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IApril 18, 2009

HAMPTON, GA - MARCH 08:  Dale Earnhardt Jr driver of the #88 AMP Energy/Natiional Guard Chevrolet waves to the crowd during  prerace for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 8, 2009 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The most popular driver in NASCAR has not been off to the best start.

He's outside the top 12 in points (67 points behind Jeff Burton), hasn't won a race yet and is repeatedly making mistakes.

Quite the contrary from 2008 when he carried the banner for Hendrick Motorsports until the Chase came.

Everyone in the NASCAR world has taken notice and they all, Earnhardt Jr. fan or not, have something to say:

  • He's just a mediocre driver (he has won the Daytona 500, All-Star race and six races in one year)
  • Rick Hendrick gives Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon the better equipment (Yes, the 24 and 48 cars are in one shop with the 5 and 88 in another, but Rick Hendrick swears they all get the same stuff)
  • He doesn't know how to communicate with his crew chief (They're working on it) 
  • Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. doesn't know how to set up a race car (Sometimes he does admit to not knowing what to do)
  • He doesn't care about racing
  • He's not focused and
  • Tony Eury Jr. needs to be fired.
The list could go on and on but the last three that are mentioned, seemed to be the ones that have been most thrown out during race weekends this year. 
To say that Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't care about racing would be to say that Kyle Busch doesn't care about winning.
Busch loves to win and isn't happy when he's not, the same way Earnhardt Jr. loves to race and isn't happy if he isn't. 
As he says, it's the only thing he's ever known.
Due to the large and continuous mistakes that Earnhardt Jr. is making, many have questioned his focus. Saying all he cares about is selling T-shirts or partying at Whiskey River.
Unfortunately it's not up to him whether he sells anything, that comes with the popularity. As for Whiskey River, whatever a driver does Monday through Thursday isn't anyone's concern.
Drivers are entitled to have a life away from the race track and as long as the team hasn't set up a test session or anything else, then a driver can go have fun.
Kyle Busch likes to race out in the sand dunes of Las Vegas and others enjoy golfing or spending time with their families.
As a fan, I could care less what they do as long as on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, they're trying to win.
You never hear Earnhardt Jr. say in interviews that he wants to be at Whiskey River or someplace else instead of racing that weekend.
But if you still think he's not focused, then I'm going to say that Jeff Gordon isn't focused either.
All you hear Gordon say in interviews is that he can't wait to leave the race track and go see his wife and daughter. He just can't wait to get home to them, he says.
Isn't that what Earnhardt Jr. is being accused of?
Ok, Gordon won at Texas, but think of it this way: since Earnhardt Jr. joined HMS, both he and Gordon have the same amount of wins.
That would be one.
Last weekend during his Fan Appreciation Day, Mark Martin who hasn't won a race in almost four years, said that Earnhardt Jr. drives just as hard as everyone else.
"He oughta know, he's out there running with me," Junior told ESPN's Marty Smith. "I take a lot of pride in that comment from him, because you can see it when you're out there with people, you can see exactly how much they're giving and putting forth and how hard they're trying."
Earnhardt Jr. was trying hard in Texas when running seventh on two-tires, he hit the wall. That's something he takes the blame for and says he can improve.
"...I feel like I give 110 percent when I'm out there. I feel like I give a lot more than a lot of other guys do, specifically in the race."
But people aren't happy. He's an Earnhardt, so even if he has to win 30 of the 36 races, someone would be upset that he didn't win all of them. 
And so Marty Smith summed it up this way:
"Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s unrivaled popularity is both a blessing and a curse. His fans expect too much. The media, too. Fact is, to appease all he'll have to hoist the Cup. So when he struggles, a chorus of critics sings to the heavens, making his life a living hell. Or not.
"Earnhardt Jr. told me last week that criticism actually brings him hope. It means they expect us to excel, he said. I guess he listened well to the ol' man, who used to say: Boos or cheers, doesn't matter, so long as they're saying something."
Earnhardt Jr. does expect to get better and he personally, is doing everything he can to ensure that.
He recently starting running and working out. He's also started eating better to keep his fitness up when he needs to manhandle his car during a grueling 500 mile race.
His family is helping him pick out better food so that he will stop eating four or five pizzas a day with chicken nuggets and Doritos.
"I would argue with Rick (Hendrick) or anybody all day long that my physical shape was (not) affecting me on Sunday, but I was getting a little it of a gut and just wasn't giving a damn whether I was or not," he said.
"I want to be physically fit and I guess you can't wait until you're 40 or 45 years old to start worrying about that, because it's too late."
Earnhardt Jr. did say that the scale is already showing a change and he's pretty excited about all the good food that he's coming across.
Team-wise though, Earnhardt Jr. was the one, not Rick Hendrick, that called for the three hour team meeting before the Martinsville race. They all sat down and hashed things out with Hendrick Motorsports personnel and engineers. 
They're all working together toward finding better set-ups and put more emphasize on qualifying. As well as communicating more thoroughly to Tony Eury Jr.
Both Eury Jr. and Earnhardt Jr. have acknowledged that when Rick Hendrick feels that it's time to separate them, they will be all for it.
But for now, the man atop the pit box will be the same one who was being praised for having Earnhardt Jr. off to a great start a year ago.
And even if the first seven races has shown promising cars and ugly finishes, remember it's not what you do during the first 26 races, it's about how you handle the final 10.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team have plenty of time and plenty of confidence to get there.
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