Dale Earnhardt Jr., A Study In Futility or a Work in Progress?

Dave GainerCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2008

Dale Earnhardt Jr. began his racing career at the late age of 17, competing in the Street Stock division at Concord, N.C., at Motorsport Park.

His first race car was a 1979 Monte Carlo that he co-owned with older half-brother Kerry. Within two seasons, the young Earnhardt Jr. had honed his driving abilities to the point of joining the Late Model Stock Car division.

Dale Jr. ran nine Busch series races between 1996 and 1997 for his dad's racing team at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ed Whitaker.  Dale joined the Busch series full time in 1998 going on to win a title that year and in 1999.

Also during the 1999 season, he ran five Winston Cup races before going to Winston full time in 2000. Dale Jr. competed in the rookie of the year race, but fell 42 points short to a hungry Matt Kenseth. But Jr. was the first rookie to win the Allstar exhibition race.

In 2001 Dale Jr. had to endure the death of his father who lost his life on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Jr. went on to race at Rockingham the following weekend, only to finish 43rd. He followed up that bad finish with wins at Dover, Dega, and later the Pepsi 400, an emotional win that he dedicated to his dad.

In 2002, Junior had a roller-coaster season. He struggled after enduring a concussion at California and in April an injury he did not admit to until mid-September. In the three races following California, Earnhardt, Jr. finished no better than 30th.

Still, Jr. rallied to score two more wins at Dega, and a pair of Bud Pole Awards and an 11th-place finish in the standings.

2003 saw Earnhardt, Jr. become a true title contender. He scored a record-breaking 4th consecutive win at Dega, but people were beginning to say that Earnhardt Jr. could only win on the Superspeedway tracks, as his last win on a non-plate track had come at Dover in 2001.

He later put that talk to rest as he scored a victory at Phoenix in October, recording a career best third place effort in the standings. He would also take home the NMPA Most Popular Driver award for the first time in his career.

In 2004 Dale Jr. started off the year with a Daytona 500 win, six years to the day after his father won his only title in the "Great American Race." Dad was definitely on board that day!

But later in July, Dale Jr. was invited to run a C-5 corvette in The American Le Mans Series at Infineon Raceway. His car slid off course and hit a concrete barrier during warm-up the day of the race, rupturing a fuel line and causing the car to burst into flames with Jr. still inside.

He suffered second and third degree burns on his neck, chin, and legs partially due to not wearing a protective balaclava with his helmet. His burns prevented him from finishing two races where he was replaced by Martin Truex Jr. and his DEI teammate John Andretti in the middle of the races. 

The 2007 season proved to be a tough season for Dale Jr., finishing 32nd in the Big Race at Daytona and not getting a top ten until the race at Bristol, where he finished seventh.

He finished fifth at Martinsville leading 136 laps, and things were looking up until May Dale Jr.'s team was fined $100k and docked 100 points for using illegal rear wing brackets. Tony Eury Jr. served a six-month penalty for the episode.

Dale Jr. was in the running to get into the Chase running in 2nd place, at Watkins Glen until engine failure ruined his race and his chances to compete for a title....But for the fifth year in a row Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the NMPA Chex most popular Driver award.

The 2008 season Would bring major change for DEI and Dale Jr. After much speculation Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced on May 10, 2007 , that he would leave Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his father, to drive for another team in 2008.

Earnhardt expressed that his decision was based entirely on his desires to achieve his career goal of winning a title, and he believed that he would not be able to attain that objective while driving for DEI.

He said that unless he could gain majority ownership, and therefore control, of DEI, that he was not confident in the organization’s ability to field the elite level equipment that would yield that elusive title.

Now that the 2008 season has finished, and Jr. has completed his first year in the Hendrick organization. Does Dale Earnhardt Jr have what it takes to win a title?

Carl Edwards has shown he has what it takes, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, and Kyle Busch have shown signs. But After an illustrious career in nationwide winning two titles and also competing for titles in Sprint Cup, Dale has not shown the moxie expected to win a title.

He is on the best team in the business, he gets the same parts as his championship winning teammates. However, winning only one race in 2008 and winning no races in 2007, I'd say he is underachieving big-time.

2009 is the season that Jr. must step his game up. Having joined the Hendrick organization leaves him no excuses for not winning a title. It may take a crew chief change to get it done.

Standing in the way may be the added familiarity of a family member as a crew chief. Mr. Hendrick is smart enough to realize it.

I've listened to many radio transmissions of Dale Jr. talking to Tony and Hendrick, and he just seems overwhelmed when things are not going right. This season Dale Jr. will have to re-evaluate his approach as a driver and learn how to turn misfortune into victories.

Many say the 2009 season is Carl Edwards' year,  But I hope that Dale can get it together and win a title this year. God knows the Jr. Nation needs it.  I am hoping that Dale is just a slow starter and will get on his game soon....I don't want to see him become a study in futility.