What a difference a year makes...well, almost a year.
We all know that Dale Earnhardt Jr. left DEI after the 2007 season which made him part of an organization instead of the leader for the first time in his career. He came out strong, consistently running up front and carried the Hendrick banner for much of the first 26 races.
Johnson and Gordon struggled in the beginning of the season so Hendrick needed someone to carry the team and Jr was up to the task. Although only scoring one victory on fuel mileage at Michigan last June, he was by far the best driver Hendrick Motorsports had, until the Chase began.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and Jr ended up missing the end of the year banquet by finishing dead last in the 12 man field over 500 points behind eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.
Dale had a mixture of poor performance, mixed with bad racing luck and was never a factor for the championship like so many thought he would be.
Then 2009 started and Jr yet again looked strong down in Daytona, arguably having one of the top two or three cars in the field, but on an early pit stop he completely missed his pit, went a lap down and was mired in controversy when he caused a 12-car pile up racing for the lucky dog with Brian Vickers. His season hasn't been any better since then.
Apart from his one top five finish of the year, second at Talladega, Jr. hasn't spent much time towards the front this season. He did lead a section of a race in Phoenix, but went from the lead to two laps down in less than 100 laps and ended up wrecked and proceeded to beat and bang with Casey Mears post race on pit road.
Through 14 races this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just one top five, three top ten finishes and half of the races this season he finishes 27th or worse. Just last season at the same point Jr. had six top five finishes, 10 top 10 finishes and two finishes of 27th or worse while sitting third in the Sprint Cup standings.
Currently Jr. sits 20th in the standings a whopping 245 points behind 12th place Denny Hamlin for the chase cut off. Only one driver has made a charge of 200 points back or farther and that was Matt Kenseth in 2005.
His finishes after Pocono included one win, six top fives and eight top 10s in the final 12 races before the chase. Jr. is behind 245 points and needs to gain more than 20 points a race on 12th place just to have a chance at the chase.
If that wasn't enough he is going to have to leapfrog eight other drivers in the standings to make the Chase and with the way the competition is today, it is very improbable that Dale Jr. can make this kind of run.
Don't believe me? Let's just look at some other factors from this season.
He's been through three separate crew chiefs, although Whitesell was just for one day, has been broken off from working with cousin Tony Eury Jr. and that was a move that as far as Junior Nation was considered took entirely too long to make.
He had all the Hendrick brain power in is garage stall at Dover and they still couldn't make that car faster. Now sure during the race for about a 100 lap period he was in the top five, but then one adjustment put him from running 5th to 25th fighting to stay on the lead lap.
Jr. also doesn't seem very vocal on the radio when something is wrong, and offers little to no input on changes the crew could make. He often makes such comments like "I'm sayin you guys here, you gotta do somethin to fix this. I don't care what y'all do to it, just make it drive better."
Now I'm no crew chief but when I hear that compared to someone like Carl Edwards talk to Bob Osbourne, Carl and Bob talk about the car, toss changes back and forth and agree on what they should do, and hopefully Lance McGrew will be able to get Jr. to open up the lines of communication more than he has in the past.
I'll admit that I'm a proud member of Junior Nation but I don't expect him to win five or more races every season have twenty five to thirty top tens and win the championship every year, but I don't think it's out of the ordinary to ask for my driver to just park his car in the pit box properly so his crew can do their job.
There's no reason he can't be as competitive as the other teams in the Hendrick camp or even the cars from Stewart Haas racing which are basically Hendrick built.
I don't believe that Junior is washed up or can't get the job done anymore, but at least for the remainder of 2009 he should do what he did in 2007 when he also missed the Chase. Forget about the first 26 races, focus on making their stuff as best as they can heading into 2010, and maybe just maybe they can be a factor for some better finishes.
Like Junior keeps saying "We aren't going to fix this overnight." Well we don't expect you to, but the end of the season would be appreciated.
2009 is a lost cause for the No. 88 team as far as the championship is concerned, but some consistency would go a long way in pleasing a lot of people heading into the next decade of Cup racing.
Only time will tell if Junior is still amped up enough to want to fix the problem.