NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Misled By Rick Hendrick?

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IMay 12, 2010

TALLADEGA, AL - NOVEMBER 01:  Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L), driver of the #88 AMP Energy Get on the 88/National Guard Chevrolet, talks with team owner Rick Hendrick prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AMP Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on November 1, 2009 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

It sounded so perfect to have NASCAR's most popular driver join the premier race team owner, Rick Hendrick.

A move to Hendrick Motorsports for Dale Earnhardt Jr. had all the trappings of a dream marriage.

Rick Hendrick lost his son in a tragic plane crash and Dale Jr. faced the untimely death of his dad in a crash at Daytona.

Together they had a mutual bond of not only friendship, but a void that needed to be filled.  Rick Hendrick also had many ties back to the Earnhardt family.

It sounded so glamorous for Dale Jr. to perhaps become the charmed driver at HMS.  He was expected to amass wins and a championship or two.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson would race well, but in the shadow of Dale Jr. or atleast that is what many thought.

Reality began to set in at Hendrick Motorsports.  Jr. came out of the gate strong at Daytona in 2008 winning non-points events.

In 2008, he had a series of top-10 finishes including a win and got as high as third in points.  He did finish 12th in the final points standings for the year.

In 2009, the season deteriorated until the decision was made in late May to dismiss Dale Jr.'s crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr.

Lance McGrew was put at the helm of the No. 88 ship, but he was unable to guide it to open water.  The dismal season ended with Jr. 25th in points.

Meantime Jimmie Johnson continued his string of NASCAR Sprint Cup championships.  Mark Martin who joined HMS in 2009 finished second in points to Johnson.

The humiliation continued as Dale Jr. was just a fish out of water at Hendrick Motorsports.

It appeared he couldn't swim with the big fish in the Hendrick ocean.

Dale Jr.'s adventure at his new digs presented challenges.  Everyone was disappointed and wondered what was wrong, yet Jr. professed his choice was right.

Still today Earnhardt Jr. claims he will stay at HMS as long as Mr. Hendrick will have him.

As the story goes, Kasey Kahne will be the new star to light up Hendrick's dream team of drivers in 2012, if not before.

Despite his level of comfort at HMS, Dale Earnhardt Jr. should never have made the move that was supposed to be a racing panacea for him.

Egos took control of the situation at DEI and unfortunately the place at which he should have stayed became the place of last resort for him.

He belonged with the red No. 8 car, Budweiser and DEI, his father's company.  It just needed to be fixed somehow.  At the time though, the situation appeared damaged beyond repair.

As Earnhardt Jr. headed for his comfort zone at Hendrick Motorsports, Rick Hendrick was counting the extra revenue from the sale of all things Dale Jr.  The driver of the No. 88 didn't even have to win any races.

Now the group of stars Johnson, Gordon and Kahne will probably outshine NASCAR's most popular driver in 2012. 

Jr. Nation awaits the revival of their driver back to his winning ways.  Each week they collectively hold their breath hoping Dale Jr. will atleast manage a top-10 finish.

At present he is clinging to 12th position in points after moving up from 13th in Darlington at the Showtime Southern 500.

It is well know Dale Jr. is his own man.  He is not the GQ kind of guy that is becoming the signature style at HMS.  He is also not like his father.

Rick Hendrick will never ask Dale Jr. to leave the HMS fold.  Perhaps the driver of the No. 88 Chevy believes he can live up to the expectations thrust upon him and still remain in his comfort zone.  Perhaps he is wrong.

This season is crucial to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s racing future.  He needs to make the Chase.  His chance of a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this year is pure fantasy.

Should this season turn south and he does not make the Chase, Lance McGrew may be reassigned.

Depending on whether Kahne comes to HMS in 2011 or 2012, he will more than likely bring Kenny Francis as his crew chief should he have a say in the matter.

Alan Gustafson, Mark Martin's crew chief is supposed to carry on the same duties next year according to Martin. 

Something still seems wrong with that picture which would ship Kahne off to who knows where for just one year.  Gustafson may be the next in line to try and pull wins out of a hat for Dale Jr.

Jr. needs a strong person to lead his team and be able to withstand the verbal pummeling he may on occasion dole out.

His crew chief should be Tony Eury Sr.  Should Dale Jr. and Eury Sr. combine forces it could conceivably be at JR Motorsports, DEI or maybe even RCR.

It is hard to say where Jr. should be or where he might go should he decide to make a change.  It really complicates these scenarios when Dale Jr. says he isn't leaving Hendrick Motorsports and he doesn't want a Cup team at JR Motorsports.

Comfort zones are good places to be and we all like them.  For Dale Earnhardt Jr. it is not necessarily a good place to be at this time in his career.

He doesn't fit the schematic that appears to be in place at HMS.  Unfortunately even though it looked like the perfect arrangement for Hendrick and Dale Jr. to unite, things aren't always as green on the other side of the guard rail as you expect.

If winning races and a championship is part of Dale Jr.'s plan, he needs to be somewhere else besides Hendrick Motorsports.

It just may be Rick Hendrick misled Dale Jr. unintentionally.  He promised him a rose garden, but only a few daisies and some weeds sprouted up.