Whatever happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr, the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt?
Seems a fair question for those who call themselves Junior Nation—those who followed his career since the Busch series days.
He came onto the scene with a bang, winning two championships back-to-back in 1998 and 1999. From there he moved to the big time, driving the red No. 8 Budweiser car for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company started by his father.
He won the All-Star race as a rookie, something no other rookie had done up to that time, and battled for the rookie of the year, losing late in the season to Matt Kenseth.
The yellow rookie stripe was barely off his car when his dad lost his life on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The kid became a man overnight, or maybe it took place on that plane ride from Daytona to North Carolina.
He continued on in racing, going back to the track that claimed his father's life. What many thought would be an emotional race proved to be just that—an emotional win for not just the driver of the No. 8 car but for the majority of NASCAR fans.
Since then, things have changed. Crew chief change number one took place after the 2004 season when DEI's Teresa Earnhardt switched crews between the No. 8 and No. 15 teams. The second big switch in his career came years after, during the 2007 season, when Earnhardt announced he was leaving DEI and signing with Hendrick Motorsports.
Since then, he's won three races counting the Bud Shootout and a Gatorade Duel last year in Daytona. Jump forward a year and chapter two of the crew chief switch has taken place.
But is that the only change that's taken place this year? To those who follow his career, there's a debate that races aren't the only thing he's lost. He's lost part of what made him Dale Jr.
Call it confidence, or the "swagger" as former PR rep Jade referred to it on Speed Channel's Wind Tunnel. Call it what you may, but it's missing.
So I'll rephrase the earlier question: What happened to Junior? Was it the fire that nearly took his life back in 2004? One could argue that nearly dying on a track could change a person.
Or did it happen when he left DEI, after a tenacious battle with step-mother Teresa? Earnhardt Jr. once said he raced to gain approval from his father. Did leaving DEI also cost him that 'swagger'?
It could be argued that he had a sense of family pride, representing DEI after his father's death in 2001. There he was, carrying on the family business, taking the face of Dad's company. Feeling he was forced out of that position might be a reason why he's changed from the person he was to the person we see on the track in 2009.
He could be involved in too many outside distractions; Whisky River (his downtown Charlotte bar), a Nationwide Series team of two cars, and numerous sponsorship obligations including appearances and commerical shoots.
Not so says the man himself.
He visits his once or twice a month and leaves the day-to-day running of his Nationwide Series teams in the capable hands of sister Kelley.
Whatever it is, someone needs to find what Earnhardt Jr. lost. Send out a search party, issue an APB, and call in the National Guard.
A great driver and an all-around nice guy's career might depend on it.
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