Mark Martin's Latest Victory Leaves Earnhardt Jr. As Hendrick Weak Link

Joe M.Correspondent IIMay 17, 2009

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 09:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, stands next to his car on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Southern 500 on May 9, 2009 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mark Martin's 37th career win this past weekend at Darlington continues what can only be described as a destined, dream season. Seen by many before the season as a ceremonial mentor-type veteran driver, the popular Martin now seems to be getting better with age.

His two wins equal his highest season total since 1999, and his three poles are his best since 1998.

Chalk it all up to better equipment and a better team?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Remember Martin is doing all this with a new team and a new crew chief in Allan Gustafson. He's essentially in Casey Mears' old ride, but is proving that it's the driver and not the car that make all the difference.

With each win and pole he gets, it only further demonstrates just how bad the car's previous occupants were, in what had been considered the red-headed stepchild car of the organization, the dreaded No. 5 which no one could make work.

Not since Terry Labonte and more along the lines of his 1996 season.

Kyle Busch, as a 20-year-old was only able to muster four wins for Hendrick during his short-lived stint with NASCAR's power team.

To make matters worse, as we all know, it was Busch who was jettisoned from the organization in favor of NASCAR marketing machine Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his then-17 career victories.

Since the 2008 change, Eanhardt has managed only one career win, and that was last year at Michigan in a very controversial fuel-mileage-aided victory where even the most delusional race fan could have saw that had Earnhardt had to drive so much as another half lap he simply wouldn't have made it.

Crew chief-cousin Tony Eury Jr. was then credited with a Steve Letarte-type brilliance reminiscent of the Jeff Gordon glory days.

Busch on the other hand, has went on to win 11 more races in just more than a season since the move, meanwhile taking over as NASCAR's biggest weekly threat to win and the face of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Worse yet, if not for Earnhardt's miracle at Michigan as I am dubbing it, he would currently be on a 107 race winless drought, dating back to the spring race at Richmond in 2006, you know, once he fails to win at Lowe's next weekend of course.

I feel confident saying this knowing Earnhardt has shown no ability to prove me or anyone else wrong to date, nor is he capable of going off on a tear and winning consecutive races like a Gordon or Johnson.

And still the man gets all the love.

Yes we've heard from his detractors after Daytona when he publicly had to defend himself on an interview prior to the race at California Speedway.

Then, even Earnhardt acknowledged his fan base getting upset over a lack of results and for the first time noted how hard his previous week had been after the Daytona debacle, when incidents like that were usually shrugged off or shunned by the media spin in order to continue to make their merchandise-man look good.

We get it. People don't like Earnhardt per se, but they appreciate him and see him as the last remaining link to his father Dale Sr. whom they adored and admired so much from a more nostalgia pre-Hollywood NASCAR.

They simply wish for that success to continue to his son and are disappointed when it doesn't happen.

Martin's win at Darlington, along with the rest of Hendrick's impressive finishes, made it all the more obvious that Earnhardt now has become the weak link of the organization, despite having only one excuse left in the bag-Eury Jr.

Every win that Martin gets here on out, will only continue to make Earnhardt look all the worse, and I think Martin's got two or three more wins left in him this year.

Martin won the race, team mate Jimmie Johnson finished second, Gordon fifth, Brad Keselowski running in a Hendrick car, finished seventh. Then there is Earnhardt, with his typical 27th-place finish.

All these men have won at least one race this year. All but Earnhardt.

All are capable of winning a pole any given week. All but Earnhardt, who hardly ever qualifies well and unlike Matt Kenseth with his uncanny ability to qualify 33rd yet finish top 10, the same cannot be said for him.

What's even more sad is with only one top five and only one top 10 the entire season, Earnhardt can't, and doesn't, even seem to be able to get so much as a top 10 anymore and is in fact, regressing.  

Johnson is the three-time defending champion, with 18 Cup wins in the two-and-a-half years and like Busch can not only win at any time, but is capable of winning races in bunches like three out of four weeks.

Gordon, meanwhile is doing his part by leading the points standings and if not for the current Chase format, would have six Sprint Cup Championships to his credit.

What keeps holding Earnhardt back?

The car and the team can't be the problem. He's got the best equipment and the boss with the biggest pockets so competitive balance isn't an issue.

With his family name comes guaranteed sponsorship that will never cease, no matter how well, or not well for that matter, he is racing.

With all the money at his fingertips, and his age (now in his 10th full year on the circuit), there should simply be no more excuses.

It appears to be that the only reason team owner Rick Hendrick keeps him around is to sell merchandise and bring in revenue to the team from nostalgic fans holding out hope for that elusive championship trophy that will never come.  

But there remains one constant. The last excuse "Little E" has to use as his crutch-card and that is his charismatic-cousin Eury Jr.

The Tony Eury Jr. Problem

One of my friends recently tried out a NASCAR scanner at the recent Darlington race, which allows a viewer to tune into the radio frequencies of his or her favorite driver and listen to the conversations amongst him and his crew and crew chief.

All he wanted to talk about after the race was how much Earnhardt argued with his cousin throughout the entire race, and how he wouldn't let Eury Jr. do his job because he lacks the authority to call out NASCAR's Golden child.

I firmly believe that as long as Eury Jr. remains Earnhardt's crew chief, he will never win again no matter how long he races.

Of course, there is always dumb-luck like that which occurred last year at Michigan, but in reality, even a blind squirrel can find Victory Lane every now and then.

I am not blaming Eury Jr. for Earnhardt's lack of success. For not only do I think Earnhardt has already peaked, but I think Eury Jr. is in an un-winnable situation and would be better served somewhere else where his talent may be more appreciated and more able to be fully utilized instead of being held back walking on eggshells.

Additionally, I believe that the lineage connection creates an all-too-often conflict-of-interest that prevents both people from tapping into their maximum potential as both are too close to each other and thus, the situation, with "the situation" being racing for a living.

It is because of this that I believe that as long as this relationship is maintained, success at Hendrick for the No. 88 will be nonexistent to minimal at best.

The future

What will happen to the Earnhardt name?

All is not lost for 19-year-old Jeffrey Earnhardt, the nephew of "Little E" will make his NASCAR debut on the Nationwide circuit May 30 at Dover International Speedway. 

A top 10 finish would surely get the base excited, and NASCAR purists buzzing with anticipation.

Such a finish should not be that unlikely seeing how this rookie-friendly track allowed a similar bright-eyed teen to debut last year where he finished sixth.

His name was Joey Logano.

Think of the younger Earnhardt as a chance at a mulligan for these tradition and nostalgic starved fans who thought they had it all with Earnhardt Jr.

The fact that he "doesn't have it" or that "it" isn't coming should be quite obvious by now to even the most loyal fan.

The waiting game and the post race interview-excuses are wearing thin.

For a career that once looked so promising with back-to-back Busch Series titles in 1998 and 1999 and an All-Star Race win in 2004 now simply looks so sad and pathetic to say the least.

Earnhardt Jr. ignored my advice when I wrote of his urgency to get back into the game following Martin's first win of the season after Phoenix.

The next time, it will be all the more apparent that without wholesale changes to the team (i.e. a new crew chief) all that "Little E" will come to stand for is, Little Excuse which is exactly what he will face as we all wonder: "What could have been?"


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