Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be considered "the lost boy" of Hendrick Motor Sports for 2009.
When Earnhardt signed with Hendrick Motor Sports in 2008, it seemed to be a perfect fit. It was NASCAR's most popular driver, from a strong lineage of stock car racing, matched with the best equipment available. With teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson it appeared that Rick Hendrick had assembled an all-star team. There were even references as the New York Yankees of NASCAR.
The season started just as everyone anticipated. Earnhardt won the Budweiser Shootout and followed that up by winning Gatorade Duel #1, earning a starting spot on the second row for the Daytona 500.
Fast forward 26 races. Earnhardt enters the Chase in fourth place, along with Johnson (third) and Gordon (10th). Casey Mears is the only Hendrick driver not to make the run for the championship.
Although he finished 12th in the standings, there was no indication, or foreshadowing of the plummet the #88 team would take in 2009.
Going into the 2009 season, changes once again came to Hendrick Motor Sports. Mark Martin was signed on to drive the #5 car, replacing Mears after two mediocre seasons finishing no higher than 15th.
In 2009, NASCAR's seven-time most popular driver had the lowest final ranking in 10 full-time seasons in the Cup Series. It looked like Earnhardt assumed Mear's role as the fourth driver for Hendrick Motor Sports. As Johnson, Martin and Gordon finished 1-2-3 in the standings, Earnhardt fell to 25th.
In eight full seasons driving for DEI, Earnhardt's average finish was 16.4 with an average rank of 12th.
After two years in the #88 car, Earnhardt has an average finish of 18.6 and season rank of 19th.
Was there some kind of "sophomore slump" for Earnhardt in his second year driving for Hendrick Motor Sports, or is the the fourth car in the Hendrick stable cursed?
Since Hendrick went to four full time teams in 2002, the #25/#88 car has never finished higher in the rankings than 12th—this by Earnhardt in 2008. The average final ranking is 19th. Did Mears, the previous driver of the #25 car in 2007, just happen to bring the curse with him to the #5 car in 2008? And were those demons exorcised by Martin in 2009?
What will it take for Earnhardt to exorcise his demons?
First of all, improved communications between driver and crew chief. Lance McGrew and Earnhardt need to consistently be on the same page during the race. McGrew needs to have the final say in strategy and Earnhardt needs to be able to provide better feedback on the condition of the car in order to make proper in-race adjustments.
Secondly, the team needs to eliminate the costly pit row mistakes that took them out of so many races last year. Speeding on pit row, pitting out of the box, or missing the box completely cannot happen if this team is to challenge for the Cup.
Finally, the #88 team needs to finish the race. In his career Earnhardt has averaged almost five DNF's each year. With the best equipment in the business, this means Earnhardt must avoid getting caught up in the wreck that takes him out of the race.
The #5 and #88 teams were mingled in the garage in order to build synergy like the #24 and #48 teams consistently exhibit. The results are early, but with the front row locked up for Daytona, it appears to be working.
So far 2010 is looking more like 2008 for the #88 team. Time will tell if the curse has been lifted.