Dale Earnhardt Jr had the worst season of his career in 2009. 0 wins only 2 top fives, 5 top tens and finished 25th in points while his 3 Hendrick motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd in points.
Since 2005 Earnhardt Jr has only won 3 races but has finished 5th and 12th in points. But he has also finished 19th, 16th and 25th in points through that time span.
The son of NASCAR legend and arguably NASCAR's greatest driver Dale Earnhardt, Earnhardt Jr understandably feels some pressure.
“I feel a lot of pressure from (the media) or from the public to live up to the expectations,” Earnhardt said. “You sort of get the headlines every off season about what everybody expects you to do this next season. I’ve dealt with it over time, and you just kind of wait for that. Most of the time, the headlines sting a little bit, so you just kind of wait for that to wear off.
“So there's three guys that made the Chase, and we didn't, so ... we have to get out there and prove ourselves. I don't really know if I can get more detailed than that, but we're just going to go out there and try our hardest and be ruthless from the first lap to the last.”
It is going to take more than talk to comeback after such a dismal season. In 2007 when Jr announced that he would move from DEI the company his father founded to NASCAR's best team Hendrick motorsports that he would be an instant championship contender and win multiple races a season and contend for championships on a consistent basis.
In 2008 in the first 17 races no one was more consistent than Earnhardt Jr was. Being 2nd in points for most of that time span. But come chase time the team couldn't keep up and finished 12th in points dead last of all the chasers.
Then 2009 the races where Jr was a factor were far and few between. He spent most of the season running from 18th to 30th and when he had a good run going something like a wreck or mechicanical failure would ruin his day.
Rick Hendrick has decided to make Earnhardt Jr being more competitive this season his top priority.
Engineers Chris Heroy and Kevin Holstein moved over from the No. 5 team, while Chris Daugherty transferred from HMS research and development to the No. 88 squad. This was done in an attempt to have the 88 and 5 work more closely together.
Mark Martin who is a big supporter of Earnhardt Jr's ability believes that progress is being made between the two teams with sharing information and working better together.
“That’s progress,” Martin said. “That’s our commitment. I think for (Earnhardt’s) sake and for Hendrick’s sake both, things have got to get better than they were last year. If they only make minor progress in the performance side, and they have the opposite kind of racing luck than they had, they will have a Chase-making and very, very respectable season."
Jr will have Lance McGrew return to be his crew chief this season and McGrew believes that a strong season awaits the 88 team.
"Just to let everybody know how serious we are about making one team out of this building," he said. "Alan conceding some of his guys and us reorganizing some of the 88 team into pretty valuable positions in the shop, it allows us to do a lot of things we couldn't do last year as a building."
"We needed to make some changes, play on people's strengths," McGrew said. "We had a lot of the right people but maybe not in the right spots."
Jr must at least make the chase, win a race and finish in the top ten in points to consider 2010 a successful season. He cannot wallow in mediocrity like he did for most of 2009.
I highly doubt Jr is worrying about job security just yet being the face of NASCAR, but one must wonder how long would Hendrick let Jr be mediocre at his team.
All the tools are there for a successful 2010 season. The addition of crew members from the 5 team which will allow both teams to work closer and better together, a familiar voice over the radio with McGrew, the money and equipment from Rick Hendrick, and Earnhardt Jr certainly has the talent and will succeed.
Now everything must work out.