By admin | October 20, 2009
By Richard Allen
It was another week and yet another disappointment for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this past Saturday in Charlotte. A broken transmission sunk any hopes the driver had for a good finish on the 1.5 mile track.
At any given time, one of the biggest topics of conversation among NASCAR fans is the standing of driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Due to his status as the sport’s most popular driver, any conversation about the third generation star is sure to draw plenty of attention and strong opinions.
With that said, it is time for all involved to seriously re-evaluate Earnhardt’s place in the sport. It appears as though the time has come to admit the driver’s talent level has been significantly overrated.
A glaring piece of evidence to confirm this comes from within his own team. Hendrick Motorsports fields cars for four drivers. And more, their satellite team, Stewart-Haas Racing, fields an additional two car team. Of those six total teams, five made the Chase for the Championship. Only Junior did not.
Not only did five of those six HMS/SHR cars make the Chase but they currently fill positions 1-4 in the standings. A team so dominate as to place cars in such strong title contending positions obviously has great equipment. Those other drivers have taken advantage of that equipment. Junior has not been able to capitalize on the very same advantages as his teammates which certainly provides reason to question his driving abilities.
HMS/SHR cars have accounted for 16 wins this season and 24 wins over the past two years. Junior has contributed only one of those victories, a fuel mileage stretch over a year ago in Michigan.
As noted, Junior failed to make the Chase this season. However, he did qualify for the playoff last year but managed only a 12th place finish in the championship run.
And worse, many of Earnhardt’s recent troubles have been self-inflicted. Crashes and his now infamous pit road drive-thru trips have cost him dearly. Also, some of the mechanical issues his cars have experienced this year might well have been caused by driver error. Broken transmissions and engines during pit stops and restarts are often caused by the driver, especially when that driver’s teammates rarely encounter the same problems. Junior suffered a broken transmission this past weekend in Charlotte.
Those who defend Junior to the last look to his 18 career Sprint Cup wins and his two Nationwide(Busch) Series championships as evidence of his talent. A closer examination of his Cup victories reveals that seven of those wins have come on one type of track, the big restrictor plate speedways. Many drivers are quick to point out that on those tracks the driver has the least impact a car’s performance than on any other type of venue.
As far as his Busch Series titles, Jeff Green, David Green, Johnny Benson, Steve Grissom and Chuck Bown were also Busch Series champions and none of them had much of a career in Sprint Cup racing. Winning on that series provides no guarantee of success at a higher level.
So what’s the problem with all of this? Well, NASCAR, the television networks, tracks and souvenir vendors have so much tied up in this one individual. And it is looking more and more like this individual does not have the ability to live up to the investment and expectations placed on him.
The bottom line is that those involved are at a point where a serious re-evaluation of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. should be soon at hand. This sport and its leaders have made many mistakes in recent years that are now coming back to haunt them. They have the empty seats and diminished television ratings to prove that. Placing so much trust in one individual may well be the one that hurts the most.
This column is not meant to tell anyone who to root for. However, any honest evaluation shows that anyone rooting for this particular driver should not have overly high expectations. It is also not meant as an attack. However, when one person is so much the focal point of a particular entity as Earnhardt is in NASCAR, the door is opened for constant grading and criticism. It just comes with the territory.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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