By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
FORT WORTH, Texas – No matter how hard he tries, being a race car driver just isn't easy for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Perhaps the biggest curse of his name, public personality and popularity is having a rabid fan base that expects him to win every race and every Sprint Cup championship – even though we all know how unrealistic an expectation that is.
The reality is Earnhardt has yet to win his first career Sprint Cup championship, and although he has 18 Cup wins in 333 career starts, he's won just one race in the last 104 races.
To put that in perspective, the driver of the No. 88, who will start Sunday's Samsung 500 from the 20th starting position, has just one win (last June at Michigan) in the Cup series in nearly three years (dating back to his previous win at Richmond on May 10, 2006).
Extrapolate that further and the record book will show you that since his winningest season in 2004, when he won a career-high six races – including the Daytona 500 – and finished fifth in the final standings, Earnhardt has just three wins in his last 152 starts.
Oh, the humanity.
His move from Dale Earnhardt Inc., to Hendrick Motorsports last season was supposed to the linchpin that would revitalize Earnhardt's career. There was nothing but sunshine, blue skies and lots of wins and championships on the horizon.
Or so his fans eagerly thought would happen.
Unfortunately, it has been anything but, at least up to this point. While he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in his first season at HMS, he finished a disappointing last of the 12 playoff drivers.
This season, Earnhardt has been beset by more woes. Fans have picked up where they left off at the end of last season, calling for crew chief Tony Eury Jr. – who Earnhardt has staunchly defended and stood by – to be fired.
In the first six races, Earnhardt has zero wins, zero top-five and just two top-10 finishes. He caused a massive wreck in the season-opening Daytona 500 that saw him in the strange position of not only having to vociferously defend himself, but also took heat from a number of his fellow drivers – who up to then had been very reluctant to publicly criticize NASCAR's most popular driver the last six years running.
And as we prepare for Sunday's race, perhaps the most glaring statistic of all hits home like a sharp slap to the face: Of the 1,975 laps that Earnhardt has run thus far in 2009, take a guess at how many of those have been laps scored while leading the field.
100? Not even close.
50? Hah, yeah, right!
25? Keep going.
The answer is – and brace yourself, Junior fans – ONE. That's right, Earnhardt has led just one lap all year.
It's no wonder that the pressure of mediocre performances and finishes may finally be getting to Earnhardt and the rest of the No. 88 team.
Granted, things could be worse – but they also could be a hell of a lot better. And that's what Earnhardt wants: for things to get better – much better.
That's why, prior to last week's race at Martinsville, Earnhardt brought Eury and a number of Hendrick Motorsports executives, including Ken Howes (vice president of competition), Brian Whitsell (team manager) and Doug Duchardt (vice president of development) together for a brainstorming session, arguably the most important get-together since Earnhardt came to HMS.
"I just wanted them to tell me their real thoughts and give it to me (straight)," Earnhardt said. "If it was a punch in the face then that’s what it was. I just wanted to hear it from them as to what they wanted me to do and what I could do better."
Whether the meeting had a significant impact remains to be seen, although Earnhardt coincidentally did earn his top finish of the season thus far (eighth) at Martinsville a few days later.
"It’s great to hear from those guys," Earnhardt said. "They have so much experience and they do such a great job. They just know that company so well, they know what race car drivers need to do and need to be and how they need to act. They know how good crews are supposed to be. I just want them to lead me, man. I want them to guide me and tell me when they think I’m doing the wrong thing."
And if that includes Eury needing to emulate the way other teams in the Hendrick stable do things, particularly three-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson or four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, than so be it.
"I think we have to be wise and open-minded to what our teammates are learning and what they’re doing to go fast," Earnhardt said. "You have to all the time especially when they’re fast. It’s (Eury's) job to be smart enough to know what to do. He’s the crew chief and he’s the leader of the team in that essence.
"The one thing you must not do when you have teammates is let your ego stand in the way of understanding what they’re doing and how they’re making something work. I don’t think (Eury) does that. Any time you get so competitive that your ego gets in the way of trying to learn from somebody like (Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief) or whatever" is a recipe for disaster, Earnhardt added.
Now Earnhardt comes to Texas Motor Speedway, the second-fastest non-restrictor plate track on the circuit (behind only Atlanta), with the third largest winner's payoff behind only Daytona and Indianapolis, and a venue that kicks off a stretch of races and tracks on the schedule where Earnhardt excels at the most.
Don't believe me? Starting with Texas and continuing through Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond, Earnhardt has logged 11 of his 18 career Cup wins.
Ergo, based upon past history, if Earnhardt is to turn things around, these next four races have the potential of being among the most important of the season for the Kannapolis, N.C. native.
It may not quite be make-or-break, but what he does in these next four races could go a long way towards determining whether Earnhardt improves upon last year's debut with HMS or goes through yet another mediocre season that have become all too common despite Earnhardt's stature and popularity – and much to his fans' chagrin.
They want him to win every race and every championship – that's the burden that comes with being the sport's most popular driver and with its largest fan base – while Junior is simply hoping to just win something, anything.