By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(February 15, 2011)
Another season, another cameo.
Another Miss Congeniality award to Jimmie Johnson's Miss America.
Another undercard to the main event.
It wasn't performance on the racetrack that brought Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Las Vegas in early December. It was an Internet fan vote that confirmed him as the Sprint Cup Series' most popular driver for the eighth straight year.
Earnhardt's brief, barely-short-of-sheepish appearance at an annual awards luncheon came some 30 hours before the meat of the Cup awards program—the banquet that honors those who won and contended for championships, those who rewarded their fans with checkered flags.
The ceremony came nine days after team owner Rick Hendrick pulled the trigger on radical changes that, among other things, will pair Earnhardt with his third crew chief in four seasons at Hendrick Motorsports—and amplify the pressure on a driver who already carries the weight of the sport on his shoulders.
Earnhardt is saying the right things about his desire for on-track success. "I want to be in racing for a very long time, and I know that I can drive good enough to run well," he says. "You know, I'll stick around until I get it right. It's eventually going to have to happen."
But is his quest to prove himself really that open-ended?
Though Hendrick has contradicted the assertion that his personnel moves—aligning three of his four Cup drivers with new crew chiefs—are focused primarily on improving Earnhardt's performance, there's no doubt that Earnhardt's pairing with Steve Letarte will attract more scrutiny than any other.
After all, despite a winless streak that has reached 93 races and a glaring two-year absence from the Chase, Earnhardt remains the face of NASCAR to fans relentlessly loyal to the Earnhardt brand and to corporate sponsors who continue to trade on his popularity.
When, though, will Earnhardt run out of excuses? When will simply being Dale Earnhardt Jr. cease to be enough?
Ten years have passed since Earnhardt's father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. For the better part of four years, Earnhardt upheld the family franchise, but since 2004 he has stumbled under the overwhelming expectations thrust upon him by others.
Lest anyone forget, Earnhardt has enjoyed no small measure of success in Cup racing. He has 18 victories and three times has finished in the top five in the championship standings.
With a high-water mark of six victories in 2004, Earnhardt had begun to establish an identity of his own.
"From Day 1, when I was racing in Myrtle Beach, people would ask me for my autograph, and I just assumed it was only because of my relationship with my father," Earnhardt says. "There came a point in my career … when I became more successful and I felt like I was earning my own corps of fans, and then you would hear fans say they liked you and didn't like your dad, but they liked you.
"That was kind of cool."
Since 2004, however, Earnhardt has struggled, posting three victories. The 2008 move to Hendrick Motorsports from a family-founded Dale Earnhardt Inc. team in turmoil, accompanied by colossal anticipation and huge fanfare, was supposed to solve the problem. It hasn't.
He has won one race with Hendrick and will start 2011 with yet another crew chief.
His first crew chief, cousin Tony Eury Jr., came with Earnhardt from DEI and lasted not quite halfway through the 2009 season, giving way to Lance McGrew. Where Eury had tried to deflect Earnhardt's complaints about the handling of his cars, McGrew was more assertive, occasionally confrontational.
"I don't know what the reasons were for me and Lance and that group as a whole not working out," Earnhardt says. "I really enjoyed Lance, and I think we're still great friends today, and I think he has a lot of talent. But it just didn't work, for whatever reason."
It doesn't help that Earnhardt's teammates—Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon—finished 1-2-3 in the standings in 2009. It doesn't help that Johnson won his fifth straight championship in 2010. It doesn't help that the driver Earnhardt replaced at HMS—Kyle Busch—has won 15 Cup races, 32 Nationwide races and 18 Camping World Truck Series races since leaving Hendrick at the end of 2007. And it certainly doesn't help that popular, charismatic driver Kasey Kahne will take Martin's place at HMS in 2012.
Problems with the COT
The comparisons have not been kind to Earnhardt. Neither has the new Cup racecar, which NASCAR introduced to the series in 2007. Earnhardt still calls it the COT (Car of Tomorrow), though, clearly, he'd prefer that it became the Car of Yesterday. More than a few of his descriptions of NASCAR's creation are unprintable.
Though Earnhardt was fast enough to run with the leaders in 2007 and early 2008, he hasn't found a consistent feel with the new car at Hendrick.
"The COT has been really challenging for me, and I haven't had a good, comfortable car in quite a while," Earnhardt says. "But I think that the potential for the car to get the grip and get the feel of the racetrack that I need is there because I've had it before."
Earnhardt says one of the issues has been his team's inability to find the right "combination" for the new car.
"Whether it's our package in the springs and sway bars, which it probably isn't," he says, "we're missing something for the car and the feel that I need to feel."
Earnhardt himself is something of a misfit in the corporate atmosphere of Hendrick Motorsports. He's an inveterate night owl. The awards breakfast in Las Vegas became the awards luncheon, largely because the perennial most popular driver had previously struggled to make the 8:30 a.m. start time.
Clearly, too, Earnhardt's confidence is low. The swagger is gone. Reacting to that—and to a fall-off in the performance of all his teams in 2010 other than Johnson's—Hendrick made his sweeping personnel changes two days after the season ended.
"When your confidence is shaken, you just get to a point where you need something to give you that feeling that you can do it and you've got faith in the guy that you're working with," Hendrick says. "Sometimes it just gets to a point, the frustration sets in, and it just can't work.
"It doesn't mean that Dale is not a good driver or Lance isn't a good crew chief. It just got to the point where it was not working and we needed to do something different. I had seen this many, many times. You make a switch and you get a new lease on life, and everybody gets excited."
His new leader
Enter Letarte, the indefatigable optimist. If Earnhardt needs a cheerleader to bolster his sagging confidence, Letarte is his man.
"He's going to know that I have confidence in him," Letarte says. "That a building that has won nine championships and won the championship this year, won six races this year, builds Jimmie Johnson's cars and built Jeff Gordon's cars—when he walks around that building, he's going to see 85 guys that believe he can win races.
"They say success breeds success. Well, confidence breeds confidence, and he's going to see enough confidence in his race team that I believe he's going to have confidence when he goes on the racetrack. I know he can drive, I know he can win, I know our cars can win, and I'm excited to give him a platform week in and week out that he can display his talents."
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France certainly hopes that's the case. A successful Earnhardt has the capacity to move the TV ratings and attendance needles the way Tiger Woods did in golf before his fall.
"(The fans) really want Dale Jr. to win more races—they really do," France says. "Hopefully, he'll get it going. It would be good for us."
Even a winless Earnhardt is a cash machine. He's at the top of the list in merchandise sales. Detractors are fond of saying that, when Hendrick "swapped" Busch for Earnhardt, he was trading driver for die cast.
The latest shakeup at Hendrick could be the final chance for Earnhardt to prove that comparison is a mischaracterization. Because at some point, even his most fiercely loyal fans have to realize that, in the context of all the team and crew chief changes, the one constant is the driver.