Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jinxed? The Lore Of The Sports Illustrated Curse

Kara MartinSenior Analyst IJune 13, 2009

Since its first publication in 1954, Sports Illustrated has taken us into the lives of our favorite athletes and teams. Making the cover of SI is a sure sign of success in the sporting world, but it has also proven to be a curse for some who have graced its cover.

Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews was SI’s first cover subject on Aug. 16, 1954.

One week to the day after the cover date, Mathews became the first victim of the "jinx," suffering a hand injury that forced him to miss seven games.

Hailed for his "perfect swing," it was thought to be that Mathews would be the next Babe Ruth, but that was the year that Hank Aaron joined Mathews in Milwaukee and would eclipse Ruth’s record of 714 home runs.

Over the next six decades, numerous athletes would adorn the cover of sporting’s most coveted magazine only to meet with an unlucky fate.

SI's 1958 Indy 500 preview on May 26 featured Pat O'Connor on the cover. Four days later, he was killed in a 15-car pileup during the first lap.

Laurence Owen appeared on the Feb. 13 cover in 1961, billed as “America’s Most Exciting Girl Skater." Two days after the cover date, Owen and the rest of the U.S. skating team perished in a plane crash.  

Evel Knievel, after the Sept. 2, 1974 preview of his much-heralded canyon leap, fails miserably and thereafter loses much of his mystique.

The Washington Redskins were on the Dec. 18, 1982 cover. They were undefeated until they played the Dallas Cowboys that week and lost, 24-10.

A week after his appearance on the March 8, 1999 issue, Dennis Rodman missed four Lakers games and then took a leave of absence to address "personal matters." He filed for divorce on April 6. Los Angeles released him from the team on April 15.

In January 2002, Alexander Wolff, a senior writer for SI, did an entire story on the SI jinx entitled “The Cover that No One Would Pose for. Is the SI Curse for Real?”

Kurt Warner was asked to pose for the cover with a black cat. Familiar with the potential curse, the (ironically) No. 13-wearing Warner refused, and the cover was published with nothing more than a black cat.

The thought of photographing the cat that superstitions are made of even unnerved the photographers of SI. After “auditioning” several all black felines, they chose one with a small white patch on his chest that was later airbrushed out for the final cover.

Wolff painstakingly went through virtually every one of the 2,456 covers, uncovering 913 “jinxes”—demonstrable misfortune or decline in performance following a cover appearance 37.2 percent of the time.

Sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who works with professional athletes on this very matter, calls it "a failure to efficiently metabolize heightened expectations."

The SI Curse has been silent for many years, but I am sure of you looked hard enough you would see that pestilence has continued to haunt athletes worldwide.

With rumors swirling as to what has happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr., it got me thinking. Maybe Junior is jinxed?!

What? It could happen! 

In 2008, he got the double-whammy of voodoo by not only appearing on the February issue of SI, but by getting behind the wheel of a green car!

Race car drivers have shared a bias against the color green for decades. Reportedly, it began after a 1920 accident in Beverly Hills, Calif. that killed defending Indianapolis 500 champion Gaston Chevrolet.

It was the first known racing accident in the United States to kill two drivers, and Chevrolet reportedly was driving a green car.

Earnhardt Jr. started the 2008 season with his new Hendrick Motorsports team on the right foot by winning the Budweiser Shootout on February 9 and the Gatorade Duel 1 on February 14.

He took home a top 10 finish at the Daytona 500 on February 17.

The Sports Illustrated cover featuring Earnhardt Jr. draped across the hood of his new Amp sponsored Chevrolet hit newsstands on February 18.

The following week he finished 40th at Fontana.

During the 2008 season, Junior would only win one points race and finish 12th in the Chase.

It has proven to be an unlucky streak that has followed him into the 2009 season.

Some will be quick to remind me that Earnhardt Jr. has appeared on or has been mentioned on more than one SI cover and some of his misfortune really wasn’t that bad, was it?

I will let you, dear readers, make that decision for yourselves. I have merely laid out the facts as I see them. I may be grasping at straws, but it is, in my opinion, a theory that makes as much sense as every other one out there.

On Dec. 1, 2000, Earnhardt Jr. made his SI cover debut by posing alongside his father. Just two months later as the 2001 season got underway, Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

Junior raced at Rockingham the following weekend, but finished 43rd, after a wreck that looked eerily similar to his father's crash just one week earlier.

After his appearance on the July 2, 2002 cover, he would only go on to win once in the second half of the season, at Talladega. Critics began to speculate that Junior could only win on the restrictor plate tracks.

After struggling with bad finishes, Junior admitted in September to a concussion that he had sustained at Fontana earlier that year.

Posing with Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch on the Dec. 11, 2002 cover must have diverted some of Junior’s misfortune.

Earnhardt’s 2003 season was his best. He scored a record-breaking fourth consecutive win at Talladega, finished third in the points standings, and took home the NMPA Most Popular Driver Award for the first time in his career.

On Dec. 17, 2003, Earnhardt Jr. appeared on a special SI collector’s edition. The Earnhardt family had won the People’s Choice fan poll, which seemed to bring him luck. On Feb. 15, 2004 Junior won the Daytona 500, six years to the day that his father had won his only 500 title.

Junior appeared two more times that year, once in a small header on Feb. 23 announcing his win in Daytona, stealing the spotlight from cover boy Alex Rodriguez, who would later find himself “cursed” and again on May 26.

On July 18, during an off-weekend from NASCAR, Earnhardt Jr. crashed his Chevrolet Corvette during a practice for the American Le Mans Series Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway.

The car slid off course and hit a concrete barrier during warm-up the day of the race, rupturing a fuel line and causing the car to burst into flames with Earnhardt Jr. inside.

He suffered second and third degree burns on his neck, chin and legs. The burns prevented him from finishing two Cup Series races where he was replaced by Martin Truex Jr. and his DEI teammate John Andretti in mid-race.

Despite a career-high of winning six Cup races that year, Junior would finish fifth in the points standings, thanks in part to NASCAR for penalizing him 25 championship points for using obscene language during the television broadcast and two consecutive DNFs during the Chase.

At the end of the 2004 season, it was announced that his long-time crew chief Tony Eury Sr. was being promoted to the team manager position at DEI.

Earnhardt’s Budweiser Chevy was featured along with other Daytona drivers on the Feb. 28, 2005 cover.

The season would prove to be one of Earnhardt’s worst to date as he changed crew chiefs three times and pulled out a lone win in Chicagoland.

He was eliminated from any hopes of making the Chase after suffering an engine failure at the California Speedway.

He shared the cover once again on Dec. 5, 2007, this time with his fellow HMS teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Casey Mears. As mentioned above, the 2008 season started out promising but would quickly take a nosedive after appearing solo on the cover in February 2008.

Mears certainly suffered from the curse as he was released by HMS at the end of the season with Mark Martin taking over his ride.

While it may seem implausible to some that an article written in 2008 could still be affecting Junior in such a negative way. I say bring on the garlic necklaces and kryptonite. The SI Curse knows no limits and has no steadfast rules.

Basketball great, Michael Jordan appeared on the cover a record 51 times before he was plagued with trouble, proving that no one is immune. On Jan. 14, 2002, as SI went to press, news reports came out that cover boy Michael Jordan’s wife had filed for divorce.

So what if they reconciled shortly thereafter? The damage had already been done. Jordan and his wife sailed the uncertain seas of deceptive wedlock for another four years before finally calling it quits for good in 2006.

My advice to Junior and his crew: Feng Shui the hell out of that garage area to get some positive vibes flowing, start practicing Santeria, put a bone through your nose for all I care, I won’t judge!

Desperate times call for desperate measures.