By admin | March 2, 2009
By Richard Allen
I can’t imagine what it is like to be Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Well, on the one hand I can imagine living the high end lifestyle he gets to live because of his lucrative contracts, endorsements and souvenir sales. That part of being Junior is probably pretty nice.
The part I really have no way to grasp is the driver side of Junior. There can’t be anyone in the Sprint Cup garage under the kind of scrutiny he is under. He is the son of and bears the name of one of NASCAR’s greatest legends and most popular icons.
Right or wrong, from the first time he sat in a race car great things were expected from Junior. He was supposed to follow in the foot steps of and learn from his famous father. Of course, that plan was shaken on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Immediately, and much sooner than was probably ever intended, Junior assumed the responsibilities of his name. Wins, championships and a larger than life personality were expected of him.
The difficult thing is, with every passing year the pressure mounts. Now, at age 34 and with no championships as of yet, the thought of ‘when’ is beginning to be replaced by ‘if’.
Adding to the pressure is the fact that Junior is now driving for what is considered by many as the best team in NASCAR. Jeff Gordon has won four titles for Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson has won the last three Sprint Cups in a row. There is no doubt HMS is a championship caliber organization. They have the trophies to prove that.
After spending the first eight seasons of his career driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Junior switched to Rick Hendrick’s team for the 2008 season. Much was hoped for in a short time from fans, the media and even the non-racing sports world.
In 2008, Earnhardt won one race and qualified for the Chase for the Championship. That is a successful season for many, but with the lofty expectations set for Junior some may have called 2008 a failure for him.
With all of that said, 2009 is a pivotal year for Earnhardt. No one is more aware of that than the man who is the focal point of all the pressure. He has said many times that he puts more pressure on himself than anyone else puts on him.
Perhaps he is putting too much pressure on himself. On more than one occasion in Daytona, Junior had problems that could only be attributed to the fact that the driver was either trying too hard or has too much on his mind. Sliding through the pit stall, missing the pit stall altogether and causing the ‘Big One’ are all the result of the two possibilities mentioned.
In California, Junior never really got the chance to do anything good or bad. His engine began giving trouble early and eventually expired, resulting in a 39th place finish.
Sunday in Las Vegas, another one of those unforced errors reared its ugly head. Again, Junior had problems on pit road. He was caught speeding entering the pits and was forced to serve a drive through penalty, which put him a lap down.
Granted in this case, there were several others in Vegas to suffer the same issue over the course of the weekend. But still, it’s the same problem as has happened before. This time, it occurred early enough that he was able to recover for a 10th place finish.
Early this year and throughout much of last year, Junior has had these type of mistakes to cost him good finishes, and perhaps even wins. Pit road goofs, scraping the wall and bumps with other cars have proven costly.
If I were in a position to give Junior advice I would tell him to just relax. I know that is easier said than done, but it seems as though he was a better driver several years ago when he didn’t seem to be such a victim of the pressure he must feel.
As was stated earlier, there is no one in the NASCAR garage, with the possible exception of Kyle Petty, who can relate to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. In the sports world, perhaps only Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and a very few others have so much to live up to. Junior needs to find the same key to success those athletes have found. Well, maybe not the same as Phelps.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
Topics: Articles |