Earnhardt Jr. Still Trying To Balance Popularity and On Track Performance

Sal Sigala Jr.Senior Analyst IJanuary 1, 2010

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 06:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 6, 2009 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The decree is once again out on one of NASCAR’s most popular, as well as the sports most underachieved, driver for this past season.

Jr. Nation can say all they want and try to defend him with their own theories on why he had such a miserable season, but, in walks reality to let them know once again he fell way below all the preseason hype surrounding his move to HMS.

When you take a look at the transition that took place when Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from a team that was only showing glimpses of success with him, to a team that already had a four-time as well as two-time champion in its arsenal, maybe the pressure of having to perform at a much higher level might have been a little to much for Earnhardt to handle.

After all, this is a team where dreams are supposed to come true, maybe not for all their drivers, but at least for the drivers that have come over with high expectations, as was the case with Earnhardt.

This same team has shown in the past they have the tools, as well as the latest in modern technology, to make big things happen if that driver is willing to put in the effort to be successful.

Even though success can be measured in a number of ways, and simply because Earnhardt is NASCAR’s reining most popular driver for the seventh time in his career, why sugarcoat the truth with an award that has nothing to do with his on-track performance?

There are no excuses for a driver who finished 25th in points with only two top fives, and five top 10 finishes along with zero poles and zero victories. Especially when you compare those numbers against his first season with Hendricks Motorsports when he made the chase and finished 12th, along with one victory, one pole, 10 top fives, and 16 top 10 finishes. What happened to the 35 year old driver, who hails from Kannapolis, North Carolina, that averaged a little over two victories a season from 2000-2003?

Earnhardt was making great strides towards his dream of becoming a Sprint Cup champion when he finished fifth in the point standings in 2004; the first year of the chase.

Earnhardt gave the Nation something to cheer about when he rattled off six victories, along with 16 top fives and 21 top 10 finishes while driving for a team that was nowhere near where Hendricks Motorsports is today.

Since then, Earnhardt has only nine wins in his last 216 starts, which spans six years since the chase began in 2004. In the last four years alone he has only three wins in 144 starts, which includes only one victory in the Car of Tomorrow.

Earnhardt now has himself stuck in a valley that has many obstacles. One of those obstacles he faces is trying to find a way to balance his immense popularity, with his sub-par performance.

The latter can only be manifested once he becomes more consistent and finds that elusive victory lane. Victory lane might not erase all the pain and agony he has been experiencing, but it could be a shot of oxygen needed to breathe some life back into his suffocating racing career.

Popularity is the easier of the two to control, and Earnhardt has already proven that, especially when you look at his character and gauge it off of how he has handled defeat as well as success.

Earnhardt has always been consistent no matter what the circumstances are, and his father would have been really proud if he were alive today, because of the positive way that he has portrayed the sport that the elder Earnhardt loved so much.

The popularity he has been building on since coming into the cup series back in 2000 has overtaken the performance that he was famous for while racing in the Busch Series, where he won back to back titles in 1998 and 1999.

Life itself may not always be about the "W” in the win column, it is important, but it’s sometimes said that it’s the “W” in the people's lives that you have touched in a positive way which can be just as important.

Unfortunately NASCAR racing does not operate according to those standards, and there is no way a driver will make it into the Hall of Fame or become a champion if he chooses to follow that route.

Earnhardt’s legion of fans have always stood behind him no matter what circumstances may have come his way, but there will come a day when the well will go dry, along with his popularity, if he doesn’t start winning some races.

Popularity along with anything in life will only be able to carry him so far. The transition Earnhardt went through while trying to race, and at the same time trying to uphold a family name that is considered greatness around the world of racing, could not have been an easy task.

It’s not like Earnhardt never realized that, because just last month he mentioned it after receiving his seventh most popular driver award.

You have to also give a lot of credit to his PR rep who is riding this exact scenario out until the wheels fall off, by making sure that her driver says and does all the right things to keep his popularity in check with his fans.

Because away from the fans, a few of the drivers throughout the season have expressed their dislike because of his performance on the track, even though they came back later and apologized.

Most of us already know that the truth usually comes out when you are upset at something, so to say that Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch didn’t mean what they said after having an altercation with Earnhardt on the track would be a false statement.

Earnhardt right now is like an open wound that needs to be stitched up, instead of trying to cover it with a band-aid.

That is only good for a temporary fix.

His fans today are his worst enemy when they send him email and letters telling him that everything is okay, when in reality things are from normal and he needs a swift kick in the rear end to make him realize that he is riding on the coat tails of the many fans, which have chosen him as their own by all the sympathy they send his way.

Earnhardt cannot be treated like a boy in a plastic bubble with the Nation feeling sorry for the predicament that he put himself in.

Instead just as one of his fans so eloquently and honestly said, “ he stunk up the show last year” the rest of the Nation needs to step up while letting him know exactly how they feel without holding back any punches.

Its time to look at his career at face value, and realize that being the most popular driver is hurting him more than it is helping him.

How much more frustration is the Nation willing to put up with before they decide enough is enough, and migrate to a driver that will give them what they want besides popularity.

After all, it is the fans that made him popular, and just as easy as it was given, it could also be taken away.