NASCAR Ballad of Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Setting the Record Straight

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NASCAR Ballad of Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Setting the Record Straight
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about to close out his 11th year of Sprint Cup competition. He’s consistently one of the most talked about figures in the sport. Speculation about his career, why he runs where he runs, his personal life and his professional decisions are all fair game it seems.

Before we go any further, there’s one thing that I think I should make clear up front: I like Dale Earnhardt Jr. I’ve never met the guy, but he seems likeable enough. He’s about my age and from my part of the world. It’s easy for me to identify with him, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

He’s in an enviable position. He’s one of the most recognizable NASCAR drivers in America, and I’m talking about beyond the sport. People who have never watched a lap of a race can recognize him on sight.

He’s rich.

He probably gets all the free Pepsi products he wants. Amps aren’t cheap. I had to finance the one I’m drinking now while I write this. That’s a pretty good perk right there.

He mingles with celebrities, including Jay-Z, and that guy is married to Beyonce! How’s that for six degrees of separation?

He has his own race team, and employs one of the most talked about Nationwide drivers in recent memory in Danica Patrick.

He’s won 18 more Sprint Cup races than most of us will ever dream of winning, including the Daytona 500.

He’s racing royalty.

Earnhardt Jr. is a treasure in NASCAR. He’s a third generation competitor, and that’s become rarer in a sport that has become more diverse in terms of the areas from which the drivers hail.

His father was perhaps the most iconic figure ever to sit behind the wheel of a stock car. He was, and still is, my favorite driver. I still don’t watch a race to this day and not think about him at least once. For me, Big E. is the yardstick by which all other drivers are measured.

For a lot of people, that day the Intimidator passed away was the day they became fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For now, Dale Jr. is the center of the NASCAR universe. He has been for a while, and I don’t see a way that it will change anytime soon. Year after year he’s the sport’s most popular driver. Legions of fans don their hats and t-shirts every weekend to pull for Junior.

That’s just not going to stop, and in fact I suspect his fan base is actually growing, though I’ve never counted the green T-shirts or hats at any of NASCAR’s tracks.

That’s a completely unscientific estimation on my part, but it’s mine and I’m entitled to an observation.

Of all the eyes on Dale Jr., there seems to be three sets of people watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. that most readily make their presence known.

The first set is comprised of his detractors. They just don’t like him. They will point to his statistics; use the mighty accomplishments of his father or another successful driver of the moment as a comparison, and claim with disdain that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would never be in the Sprint Cup Series if not for his last name.

I don’t think that’s true, and if you’re among that group, you’re entitled to your opinion, but there’s a lot of less accomplished drivers who have managed to have long careers in NASCAR. Try to figure out how Ken Schrader kept showing up all those years if I’m wrong.

The second group is Junior Nation. They are his most rabid fans and lately his most staunch defenders. If you’ve ever read an article about him online that allows readers to post comments, ‘Nation is not hard to find.

I can pick them out, you can too, or maybe you’re a part of it. They range from those who feel a paternal draw to him out of watching him experience what he went though in 2001 (which is entirely understandable), to those who feel he has some unbridled talent that is just waiting to be unleashed.

Both are entirely understandable sentiments. The loss he suffered in 2001 was so public, and so painful for so many fans that a lot of people felt the need to pull for him as if it were their own child.

Those who feel he has an uncorked talent harbor the belief that you couldn’t have that last name and not carry some of that ability in your DNA. At times, he’s shown flashes of that brilliance.

Then there is the third group: the pragmatists, like me. I don’t dislike him because of some bitterness that he didn’t earn his spot, nor do I own a Dale Jr. T-shirt. Again I like the guy personally, and he’s a great race car driver.

Consider this: After the race at Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits 19th in points.

If you subscribe to the belief that the drivers of the Sprint Cup Series are the best stock car drivers in the world, after Texas using the points one can credibly come to the conclusion that as of November 8, 2010, only 18 men on the face of the earth are better drivers than him.

That’s pretty heady company. There are more than 6.8 billion people on Earth. He’s better than all but 18 of them when it comes to driving a stock car.

The interesting thing though is that even with the credentials he holds, it has seemingly become fashionable to create an alternate history for Junior.

There’s nothing wrong with fans wanting to highlight the performance of their driver. It makes for great debate.

The problem emerges when the alternate narrative of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career gets so ingrained in the NASCAR consciousness that it replaces the reality. The alternate history is dangerous because it has a strange way of distorting our expectation of him.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second straight Nationwide (Busch) title in 1999.

It’s sort of become a fishing story for racing; a sermon for the converted. A narrative for the ‘Nation: The Ballad of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It goes something like this:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his Sprint Cup Debut in 1999 after much fanfare and success in the Nationwide Series. He made five starts that year, and ran for rookie of the year in 2000.

He did it in style. He won twice that season and competed with his father, who finished second in the final points standings. Some would say later that Dale Sr.’s career was revitalized by competing against his own son.

The following year, Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away in a last lap crash at the Daytona 500. Dale Jr. was forced to mourn publicly, and in the process took on millions of fans not only for his talent, but for his charisma.

He dazzled the fans at Daytona that July, conquering the track that took his father and beginning a meteoric rise to dominance.

By 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career became something out of a Dickens novel.

After years spent languishing under the oppressive management of his stepmother Teresa at DEI, Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt it was time to have some control over the racing empire his father built.

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He wanted a piece of the company, or he threatened he’d walk.

He walked straight to Hendrick Motorsports.

His 2007 news conference announcing the move was live on television, and came as welcome news to Junior Nation. They felt certain that the move would put him in the equipment that would propel him to a Sprint Cup Championship.

However, many Amp drinks later, we discovered that Hendrick wasn’t the place for Jr. to rejuvenate his career.

After a promising start in the Budweiser Shootout in 2008, the slow decline began, and it became increasingly apparent that Dale Jr. was once again the victim of management.

Rick Hendrick unscrupulously began to shuffle resources, personnel and equipment to ensure the continued success of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at the expense of Driver 88.

The machinations at HMS have ensured that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not be able to exhibit his superior talent as long as he remains under the employ of Rick Hendrick.

He remains there a prisoner of his contract to this day, waiting for the release from HMS that will allow him to once again dominate the way he did just a few short years ago.

In a nutshell, this is The Ballad of Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s a parallel history offered while his fans await the championship form they remember.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the 2004 Daytona 500.

But it’s not entirely the truth. The skeleton is right, but it includes a few embellishments and omissions along the way which change the Ballad from the true story.

At the core of the narrative is the notion that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would win all the time if it wasn’t for his circumstances.

His 18 career Cup wins, his 2004 Daytona 500 crown and his back-to-back Nationwide titles in 1998 and 1999 are often cited as evidence of his bottled up talent.

Maybe that portion of his career is a lot further away than everyone thinks.

Back when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was cutting his teeth in the Nationwide Series, it was a much different series than it is now. It wasn’t heavily populated with Sprint Cup drivers like it is today.

Among the final top 10 rankings in the Nationwide series in 1998 were only two drivers who are currently driving in the Sprint Cup Series today (Elliott Sadler and Matt Kenseth), and a laundry list of people who are residing in the “where are they now files.”

He was seriously challenged by Kenseth in a Roush car, but also was chased by icons like Elton Sawyer, Tim Fedewa and Buckshot Jones.

Take a look at the Nationwide points standings after Texas. There are currently six full—time Cup drivers in the top 10, including of course the series champion Brad Keselowski in a Penske Dodge.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
2010 Nationwide Champ Brad Keselowski is among six full time Cup drivers in the top 10 in Nationwide points.

Imagine if back in 1998 there were drivers with similar Cup experience as there are now.

If you take those six drivers currently in the top 10 in Nationwide points (Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano) and figure where they are in the Sprint Cup standings and then apply those rankings to 1998, Earnhardt Jr. would have been fighting the following Cup guys for that 1998 Nationwide title: Brett Bodine (25th in Cup points), Rusty Wallace (fourth), Jeremy Mayfield (seventh), Ricky Rudd (23rd), Dale Jarrett (third) and Chad Little (16th).

Among that list are two guys who won Sprint Cup titles in their careers and a couple of less than stellar performers, but they all had something that Jr. didn’t have at that time: experience.

It’s a much different series now than it was then. There are more drivers with more experience in better stuff.

That’s not to discount those titles. Dale Earnhardt Jr. handily beat the guys he was racing against. He wore ‘em out week in and week out. It’s simply to point out that Nationwide titles in the 1990s aren’t what they are today.

But what are Nationwide titles? Do they mean anything anyway?

Jr. won back to back Nationwide titles in 1998 and ’99. Randy LaJoie also won back-to-back titles in the 1990s (1996-97). He professed he never wanted to go Cup racing, but he never even was seriously approached by the top echelon teams of the time to drive one of their cars.

Jason Smith/Getty Images
Neither Jeff Gordon nor Jimmie Johnson won a Nationwide title.

Larry Pearson won back-to-back titles in the 1980s (1986-87). He was a second generation driver, and in the 80s his father David Pearson was still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. His Cup career never went anywhere either.

On the other hand, not winning a Nationwide title doesn’t exactly mean you’ll fail at the Cup series either.

Jeff Gordon has four Sprint Cup titles and 82 victories. The closest he ever got to claiming a Nationwide title was in 1992. He finished fourth to Joe Nemechek, 222 points back.

At least Gordon won five Nationwide races. His teammate and current flavor of the last four years Jimmie Johnson never got that far. In 91 Nationwide starts, Johnson managed one win in 2001.

His futility at the Nationwide level sure didn’t come with him to Sprint Cup.

53 wins and four titles later, people are biting their nails trying to figure out if he’ll win a fifth straight. NASCAR fans are either salivating over the idea of seeing Johnson make more history or watching him implode with two races to go.

For some, he’s so good it’s boring.

Jr.’s best run in the Sprint Cup Series was 2003-2004. He won two races in ’03 en route to a third place finish in the final standings. He backed it up with a fifth place run in 2004, and that’s the season that people remember.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured an emotional Daytona 500 win in 2004.

He started it with a bang at the Daytona 500. After dominating all day, he won the race that eluded his father for 20 years in just his fifth attempt.

The Daytona 500 is a huge part of any driver’s career, and it certainly was a near obsession for his father. But does it really mean anything in terms of greatness?

Dale Earnhardt Sr. was great long before he won his only Daytona 500 in 1998. He had won 70 races and already was a seven-time champion. He had greatness covered before he won the 500. While it was a wildly popular win, history probably wouldn’t have judged him any differently if he hadn’t won it.

On the other hand, both Derrike Cope (1990) and Ward Burton (2002) won the 500. It didn’t make either of them great. Together they won seven Sprint Cup races.

That’s one fewer than Denny Hamlin has won this year.

Dale Jr.’s 2004 Daytona 500 win kicked off a season in which he won six times and posted 16 top-five finishes. It’s one of two seasons in which he was won more than twice. 2001 was the other with three wins.

Interestingly, both of those seasons were campaigned at DEI, where he ultimately left because he didn’t feel he could win and compete for titles. They also happened after the death of his father and under the widely perceived ham-handed management of Teresa Earnhardt.

Off to Hendrick Motorsports for 2008.

Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images
The pairing of Rick Hendrick equipment and Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed promise in the 2008 Budweiser Shootout.

His beginnings were promising. First time out, he grabbed his first win for Hendrick Motorsports in the 2008 Budweiser Shootout. He went on to chalk up another win at Michigan in June.

He hasn’t been to victory lane since.

Before everyone begins to cultivate the reasons he doesn’t win at Hendrick, it’s useful to note that Rick Hendrick dealt with Jr.’s sister and hired his uncle and cousin to help make a seamless transition to Hendrick.

They’ve thrown engineers and crew chiefs at Jr.’s woes, including current Stewart-Haas ace Darian Grubb. Grubb had guided Jimmie Johnson to a Daytona 500 in 2006 after Chad Knaus's suspension, then moved over to oversee the No. 88 and the No. 5 cars for 2008.

He then moved on to the opportunity of a lifetime in September of ‘08. He had the chance to crew chief for two-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart and his new operation. Some have suggested he was taken away in 2008.

He wasn’t. He pursued a great opportunity.

The idea that he was taken away is about the same as saying Ray Evernham was taken away from Jeff Gordon. He wasn’t. He left to pursue a great opportunity in team ownership.

Over the years Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had a solid career. He’s amassed 18 wins at the Cup level.

Of the 12 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year, that puts him right about in the middle in terms of win totals.

John Harrelson/Getty Images
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead all active full time drivers in wins.

Six guys have more than 18 wins: Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Stewart, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton. Of those six, three got to their totals in fewer starts than Dale Jr. (Kyle and Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson).

On the other hand, of the six that haven’t gotten to 18 wins, only Matt Kenseth has had a career as long as Dale Earnhardt Jr. They’re tied at 18 apiece and are one career start apart.

Junior has 397 starts, Kenseth has 398.

The point of all of this is maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. is just doing what Dale Earnhardt Jr. does and is running where Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs.

His average finish right now is 18.4. That’s about in the middle of all of his seasons. Six seasons he’s posted better average finishes, four have been worse. His career average finish is just about 17th. He’s a little more than one position off for 2010.

Just about everyone in the sport wants Dale Jr. to win more. I do. I’m pretty sure NASCAR does too. They know the excitement he generates when he does win.

What gets missed sometimes is the distinct possibility that he’s had his best years in terms of results. He’s 36 years old, and the fields are getting younger.

That’s not to say he’s washed up, because I certainly don’t think that. There are wins ahead, and maybe even a shot at a title.

John Harrelson/Getty Images
Junior Nation rose to its feet when the 88 took the lead at Martinsville on October 24, 2010.

In the interim, he still brings excitement to the sport, puts fans in the seats and eyes on the television. No matter what he does from here on, his place in the sport is secure.

But there’s no reason to panic because Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t running good. He’s running about where he usually runs. He just doesn’t have the occasional trips to victory lane.

His father went through a slump in the 1990s, and then came back. Jr. could do the same thing.

For the time being though, look at Dale Jr. and recognize he’s one of the last links to the multi-generational feel that NASCAR once had.

No matter what Jr. does with his career from here, that name of his symbolizes a different time in NASCAR. It’s worth remembering, and we owe Jr. a lot just for that.

That part of the Ballad of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is true whether he returns to victory lane or not.

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