By Jerry Bonkowski
His is a household name if you’re a NASCAR fan (whether you like him or not), particularly the “Junior” at the end of it.
His late father was one of the sport’s all-time giants and died in one of its most tragic crashes.
His face, the number 88 on the side of his race car and the sponsors that pay big bucks to be on that same race car are among the most recognizable elements of the sport.
And yet, with a winless streak that has reached 129 straight races (dating back to mid-2008), plus the success of drivers such as five-time champ (and teammate) Jimmie Johnson, defending Sprint Car champ Tony Stewart and the advent of Danica Patrick onto the scene as a full-time driver for 2012, that same driver has become somewhat of a forgotten man.
Maybe he needs to be in one of those old American Express commercials: “Hi, do you know me? I’ve won 18 Sprint Cup races in my career, including 5 at Talladega and 2 at Daytona. I’m one of the most recognized athletes in the world (with or without my beard). But not having won a race since 2008 – and just two since 2006 – I’ve not exactly been in the spotlight much of late.”
Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had an identity complex over the last few years. You might even stretch that to make it an inferiority complex. No matter how hard he works, no matter how much money and personnel have been poured into his team, he hasn’t won a Cup race in 44 months.
And with Stewart’s incredible run during last year’s Chase, as well as Patrick making the full-time move from Indy Cars to NASCAR, Earnhardt’s notoriety and relevance within the sport runs the risk of falling even further.
Has there been a driver with worse luck than the driver of the No. 88 over the last nearly four years? I certainly can’t think of one. His once loyal and humongous fan base has been silent for too long, even though they still come out once a year to again vote for him as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, now nine years running.
He’s gone through three crew chiefs at Hendrick Motorsports since joining the organization in 2008. The current one, Steve Letarte, helped put Junior back on the right track in their first year together in 2011, snapping Earnhardt back from the two worst seasons of his career (finished 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010) to not only make the Chase in 2011, but also to finish a respectable seventh-place – his best finish since coming in fifth in 2006 at his former home, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Yet, Earnhardt still can’t seem to buy good luck. Last Saturday in the Budweiser Shootout, he wrecked yet again for the umpteenth time in his Hendrick Motorsports tenure. Then, Thursday, in one of the Gatorade Twin 150 Duels at Daytona International Speedway, it looked as if Earnhardt was on his way to victory, only to fade in the last 1,000 feet of the frontstretch.
He tries, he wrecks. He tries, he loses. He tries, he suffers mechanical failure. He tries, a tire blows out. He tries and tries and tries, and yet one thing after another happens to deprive Earnhardt not only a trip to victory lane, but on a broader scale, the kind of success his fans and the sport expect from him.
If Patrick has a stellar season in 2012 in her full-time effort in the Nationwide Series and her additional 10-race foray into Sprint Cup, Earnhardt faces the first legitimate challenger to his Most Valuable Driver title he’s had in those last nine seasons.
But he can put an end to all of the ongoing bad things that have happened to him with one simple thing: he just has to win Sunday’s Daytona 500. It may be easier said than done, but even with all the tough luck he’s had over the last four years, Earnhardt still has to be considered a threat.
If he can avoid the inevitable multi-car wrecks that are likely in Sunday’s race, if he can out-race folks like Stewart, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and the rest of the other 42 drivers in the field, Earnhardt has the potential to right a ship that has been wayward for far too long.
I’m not going to flat come out and say he’s going to win, because we’ve been teased too many times since his last win at Michigan in June 2008, only to see him fade from the finish line. Who can forget last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet were the class of the field and had every other driver and car beaten, with the finish line well within his grasp.
Only one problem, Earnhardt wound up not having enough of the one thing anyone who wants to win a race needs to have: gas. He ran out of fuel on the front stretch, not more than maybe 500 feet away from the finish line, and Kevin Harvick streamed right by while Junior faded into obscurity.
You can almost hear Harvick chortling as he passed Earnhardt, “Thank ‘ya, son.”
Again. So close, yet ultimately winding up so far, far away.
This is not the legacy that Earnhardt wants to leave once he retires from racing. It’s time for him to get back to the driver he was back in the early-to-middle part of the last decade.
NASCAR has admittedly gone through some rough years of late, to the point where sanctioning body chairman Brian France has publicly stated that if Earnhardt wins, it will significantly help the sport regain old or attract new fans, increase TV ratings and put the sport back where it belongs, as one of the most popular athletic series in the U.S.
If Junior wins Sunday in the Daytona 500, it’ll be the biggest news the sport has seen in many years. He and the sport need a win, they want a win and, gosh darn it, he’s going to do his best to do it.