Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The name means a great champion to some, an overrated mid-pack driver to others. With 18 race wins but only one in the last three years, the answer is obviously somewhere in between.
This season started off with great promise, an exciting late race surge at Daytona seemed to indicate good things to come. But in the following weeks that momentum has seemed to have stalled and besides an average start and finish improvement, Junior's season looks very close to his runs of last year.
What exactly is the problem remains elusive, and the No. 88 team is once again in jeopardy of missing the chase.
The problem is not as easy as the pundits would say, "replace the driver."
The No. 88 teams problems are many, first let's start with that driver. Winning 18 races is no easy task and there are a number of other talented drivers with a similar slump in progress. Simply put, you don't back your way into 18 wins in any top tier racing series. With wins in the Daytona 500, the All Star Race and a known restrictor plate threat, Dale Junior has talent to spare.
It's getting the most from that talent that appears to be at question.
Sprint Cup racing is hard, always has been, and always will be. A driver/crew chief combination like Jimmy Johnson and Chad Knaus comes only once in a long while, the last such combination was at HMS in the form of Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon.
Junior has had only one proven crew chief in his career, and that was Tony Eury Sr.
With "Pops" behind the box, Dale Jr. had a talented old-timer, and a man that his father had entrusted with bringing Jr. along in this world of NASCAR. Their success together was readily apparent, even with a undisciplined party-loving driver in those days, they managed to amass 15 wins in just five seasons.
Since then the role of team leader has been left to no fewer than five chiefs, some just fill-ins some meant for the long haul. None have managed to capture the magic of Jr's early years and all have come under fire for accusations of mismanagement.
Junior needs a very special type of chief to be successful, an older more veteran type with many years of experience and demonstrated on-track results. Since Eury Sr. moved on, no such chief has been appointed for him. Getting this proper driver / chief relationship is paramount to Jr. returning to the old form.
Not that Lance McGrew isn't talented, because he is. As was Eury Jr., Tony Gibson, Steve Hmiel and Pete Rondeau. But none of them has, or had at the time, a proven track record of success. Junior has been relegated to trying to win with often times good equipment that is just not setup to his liking.
People blame Junior for this problem, of not giving the crew chiefs' the proper information. But think about that statement. Did Eury Sr. just guess luckily for those 15 wins? Odds seem to be against it.
I have listened to Junior relay information on the track scanner to Lance and he is giving very detailed information on the car's handling and what it is doing in every part of each turn. It's not the driver's fault if the crew chief can't get the setup nailed consistently or if he makes changes during the race that make matters worse—many times much worse.
Perhaps Lance should also be tasked with learning Junior's driving style and making more educated setup changes based on this information. One way or another, Junior needs a crew chief that is one in a hundred.
My feeling as a 30-year NASCAR follower and a lifetime Earnhardt fan is that McGrew is not long for the No. 88 team and that is a shame, because he seems to be a decent guy thrust into a challenging situation he was not really ready for to begin with.
But give Junior a top-notch crew chief and these race results would be bound to change. Eury Sr. has stated he doesn't know about the COT and wouldn't know where to being to get one setup properly, his time for that role has come and passed.
Junior needs someone in the mold of Eury Sr. who can give him a competitive car and make sensible adjustments without getting discouraged by a driver who is at times brilliant on the track and also on occasion highly emotionally charged.
Rick Hendrick made a promise to invest his full capability into getting the No. 88 team back into winning form. After all, for the first half season of Junior's start with HMS he was the best of the team and regularly in the top five at the finish of the race.
But this promise from Mr. Hendrick seems to be only partly fulfilled and one has to question if he is truly committed to Junior's career or simply happy to have a sponsorship phenom who will rake in the bucks for his organization even if his performance dosen't live up to expectations.
Junior will never equal the performance of his father, nobody should have ever expected him to. He could have won a dozen or more additional races with one of Dale Senior's notorious cage-rattling bump and runs.
Junior is not that kind of driver. He does not run over people for wins and has a lot of respect for that among fans and drivers alike for his patience, and respect for the history of the sport.
That patience has been wearing thin, but his emotions and heart-on-the-sleeve persona are a big part of why he is dear to a lot of NASCAR fans. He has a lot of emotional ties to the sport and over the last ten years, he has experienced a lot of turmoil from his dad passing away at Daytona to the debacle that ended his time at DEI.
Junior really needs to consider seeking professional help from a sport psychologist, to deal with these past emotional issues and put them to rest. For him it's not like the emotional events that happen to each and every one of us in our daily lives.
Junior's emotional ups and downs have come in the sport of racing and it's time to dig deeper and see what might be accomplished by a trained professional familiar with his past. He also needs to try and tackle his commitment to the sport, and to re-fire that competitive engine that Junior has, that has sat at idle for a few seasons now.
Junior also needs to drop a huge amount of outside activity, he needs to delegate and hire other people to take an even more active role in his business enterprises. Having fun and doing what you want to always runs contrary to being committed to this sport.
Junior seeking some professional help and getting even more refocused on running well are two big factors needed to a return to form. But also, Mr. Hendrick securing a top-notch crew chief for the 88 team is vital. We can only expect the same results we have been seeing the past few years if this trend of marginal talent on the pit box continues.
My sentiment is that if Junior is truly to have his chance to regain his former glory, he will have to move on from HMS after his contract is up and take JR Motorsports to the Cup level. It appears no matter what happens with Junior's team at HMS, that the No. 48 and 24 teams will always have the best of the best in personnel there.
I just do not believe Junior has been afforded that same level of capability in personnel and it's a shame that Rick Hendrick does not see that the crew chief problem was not going to be fixed with an inexperienced Lance McGrew coming on board. It looks ever more obvious that Hendrick was throwing darts randomly at a board in the hopes that some would stick.
Love him or hate him, the presence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR is vital to the future of the sport. His legacy remains unwritten and he has still many more years in him to turn things around.
Dale Junior remains an enigma, so much talent, but so hard to bring out the best in him. He needs to resolve the past emotional issues and regain his vision for his future, to once again become one of the best in NASCAR.