It was just a few years ago when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was struggling to make it into the chase.
Driving for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, a company founded by his late father, Jr. had some success after the death of Dale Sr. Then, in 2006, he began to complain of inferior equipment, poor management, and a variety of other issues.
After a string of engine failures in 2006, rumors started swirling that Jr. would eventually leave DEI for greener pastures.
It didn’t take long for those rumors to become reality.
The following May at Darlington International Raceway Dale Earnhardt Jr. hosted a post practice press conference outside his hauler. It was then announced he would be leaving DEI at the end of 2007.
His reason for leaving was simple. He wanted to win a Sprint Cup Championship and didn’t feel it was going to happen at DEI.
Just one short month later, it was announced that Dale Jr. had signed a five year contract with racing powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.
This move would cost Jr. his long time sponsor Budweiser and his familiar number eight—the number his father used early in his career—and his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, had raced with.
What Jr. didn’t lose was his longtime crew chief, and cousin, Tony Eury Jr.
A rejuvenated Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Daytona in 2008 with a new car, a new number (88), a new owner, and a new attitude.
Jr. started the season by winning the Bud Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duels. It seemed all things with Jr. were good again.
2008 would find Jr. consistently in the top 10. He would post one win at Michigan, and start the chase in third position.
Since his win at Michigan in 2008, Jr. has not visited Victory Lane.
He qualified for the 2008 chase in third position, but quickly found himself struggling and finished the season in 12th position.
A crew chief change, car design changes, and even crew member changes have not helped Jr. return to victory lane.
Going into Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, Jr. is in about the same position at HMS as he was with DEI in 2006 and 2007.
Although he did make the chase in 2006, his chances of making the chase this year are very dismal, and have once again been attributed to a variety of team issues.
Now, we come full circle in the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With two full years left on his HMS contract, Jr. does has a chance to turn things around and be the champion everyone was sure he would be under the guidance of Rick Hendrick.
His relationship with Hendrick is certainly different than that of his step mother, but as of now, the on track results are not that different.
Of course, there are also those rumors, and speculation, that Jr. will once again leave his team owner and hunt for greener pastures.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be 38 years old and quite possibly without a championship, if he fulfills his contract at Hendrick Motor Sports.
As the sport continues to evolve and sponsorship dollars getting harder to find, the greener pastures available to Jr. in the future could be just as hard to find.
A poor performance at Bristol this weekend means once again no chase for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No chase also means another year with no championship.
If things don’t improve drastically, it may be time to attend another press conference outside Dale's hauler.