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« Lessons learned in NASCAR 2009: NASCAR’s fanbase continues to erode | Main | NASCAR would do well to follow the proposed F1 points system »

Lessons learned in NASCAR 2009: Fixing Junior will not be easy

By admin | December 9, 2009


By Richard Allen

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2-3 in the final NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. Both Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, driving for what amounts to a Hendrick subsidiary, qualified for the Chase for the Championship and had strong runs throughout the season.

Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished a dismal 25th in the Sprint Cup standings with no wins, only two top-5s and five top-10s. His average starting position was 22.2 and his average finishing position was 23.3. He managed to lead only 146 laps all season. Those numbers reflect the worst performance of his career in both average finish and laps led. He has won only three races in the past five years.

Something is obviously wrong. In 2009 we learned that fixing whatever is the problem with this driver and team may be easier said than done.

Being neither a Junior fan nor a Junior hater I believe I can look at this situation objectively. Having said that, I do not believe the most popular driver in NASCAR’s fans are going to like what I have to say.

It seems as if there is going to have to be a major change in the mindset of the driver before any other issues can be worked out in this team. Even the most avid Junior fan has to admit there are lack of focus issues that were at the root of several of the his poor finishes this past season.

On numerous occasions Junior missed his pit stall in 2009. Every driver has that happen over the course of a long season, but it happened all to frequently to this one competitor. The pit road goofs often put the #88 Chevrolet back in the pack which lead to further troubles. The season opening Daytona 500 served as an excellent example of that.

I have never driven a racecar. However, it seems to me that Junior’s driving style often creates many of the problems he encounters.

No other driver worthy of note is so quick to move his car to the top side of the track and race right against the wall for virtually the entire race. And often, we see Junior make up ground early because he is running a different line from everyone else, but later, we see that he has hit the wall and caved in the side of his car. Every driver runs high on the track from time to time. Junior does it all the time and the results show that it has not worked in his favor.

Also, by listening to Trackpass and a scanner when actually attending the races, I have found that Junior offers far less feedback to his crew than any of the other HMS drivers. It seems as if the crew chief, no matter who it may be, is often left guessing as to what the car needs.

A few years ago, Junior’s step-mother and then car owner, Teresa Earnhardt, said that he needed to decide whether he wanted to be a race car driver or a commercial making, rock star type celebrity. It appears to me that she was more right than many people would have liked to admit.

And to potentially add to this problem of unnecessary distractions, Junior has signed Danica Patrick to drive for his Nationwide Series team. The media frenzy that will surround her will run the risk of gobbling up her car owner, no matter how much he may actually have to do with the day to day operation of that team.

Lack of focus in the driver’s seat, running a saloon in downtown Charlotte, and making all sorts of appearances and commercial shoots are not helping Junior’s driving career.

So, 2009 proved that Junior’s issues will not be fixed easily. And the year showed that at least some of the driver’s problems are his own.

With all of that said, however, it is also the responsibility of Hendrick Motorsports to provide cars Junior can drive. Despite a somewhat popular belief among some, Junior is not driving R&D cars for the other HMS drivers. Rick Hendrick did not get to his station in life by making stupid decisions and that would be a stupid decision. However, the cars he is being given obviously do not suit his driving style.

Mr. Hendrick recently announced that fixing Junior would be his top priority in 2010. Part of that fixing will be for his organization to do what is necessary to get Junior focused. And, they will have to figure out what kind of car best fits him. He has obviously struggled with the Car of Tomorrow but so have many others. As the popular saying goes, “It is what it is” so it has to be figured out by each team.

Junior did not get fixed in 2009. It is important that he get fixed sometime soon. The sport needs its most popular driver to be a competitive factor.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.

Topics: Articles |

17 Responses to “Lessons learned in NASCAR 2009: Fixing Junior will not be easy”

  1. Ginger Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 11:51 am

    This column if filled with so much misinformation I couldn’t possibly reply to all. If you ever decide to do some real research on this issue, I think you would find a series of missteps by Rick beginning with the end of 2007 when he spent his time trying to join GM, Gene Haas, and Tony Stewart into a Chevy race team instead of making sure the #88 team was good to go in 2008. I could bring other things to your attention, but I doubt it would make a difference in your thinking. The Nascar media (of which you are a mbr) has had so much joy in trashing Jr this year, that it has become a way of life for all of you. The facts have been twisted, overlooked, and exaggerated. You will never know the extent of the harm you have done to this young man, his fans, and to the media itself. You all have gone from informative to irrelevent. Perhaps the greatest harm has been done to Nascar itself. When you go looking for the cause of the downfall in ratings, look in the mirror.

  2. George Lawrence Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    This is the best description of JR’s 2009 season,and how to fix it for 2010 that I have read to date.Great job.

  3. Richard Allen Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Reading these two reactions to the same column was very interesting.

  4. Gail Forrester Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I agree with much of what you wrote, Richard, and I am not surprised that a Junior fan criticized you for the harm you are supposedly doing to this not-so “young” man. Junior has had a ridiculous number of pit road misadventures. His insistence on riding the high line has too often resulted in scraping the wall or damaging tires in the grit that accumulates near the wall.

    Furthermore, I don’t even agree that Rick Hendrick should devote his main emphasis to “fixing Junior.” Why did he not try to “fix” Kyle Busch, who is arguably far more talented than Junior and far more likely to succeed at the level of Johnson, Gordon and Martin?

    I think it is time for both Junior and his fans to face some reality - it is not ALWAYS somebody else’s fault.

  5. Ginger Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Gail, exactly how many pit road mistakes make up a “misadventure”? Did you count the other driver’s misadventures? Prove your point, please.

    As for Rick trying to “fix” KyB, he tried. Over and over he tried. You can’t fix stupid.

    As a Jr fan, I do face reality. And I could give you about 25 inches of written page space of reality, but you had rather believe the tired cliche…it’s not always somebodys else’s fault. Here’s a jolt. Sometimes it IS somebody else’s fault. Since you obviously are not a Jr fan and I am, we come at this from different directions. I hope you are as happy and proud of your driver as I am with mine. And I sure hope he never has as bad a year as Jr has. If he does, he will never face the tromping that Jr has had to undergo this year, but he will not have an enjoyable year . And as his fan, your year will not be so enjoyable either. Believe it or not, bad things turn out to be a blessing. You would be surprised how strong the bond is between Jr and his fans. We know he has given back to Nascar much more than he has ever received. We also know that only history will look into his life and record how much Nascar has depended on him for it’s survival. While not satisfied with this, we accept it.

    On a friendlier note, I hope you have a wonderful and joyful day.

    I hope you have a wonderful and joyful day.

  6. JIM Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    NASCAR DOES NOT NEED JR AT ALL BUT WE NEED TWO LEAVE HIM ALONG

  7. Michael Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    I’m a Junior fan, and I think this article is a good look into a couple of the issues that Junior faced this year (and the last couple of years). The pit road issues were definitely bad. I think a little bit of focus should cure that issue. Junior’s habit of driving right up against the wall - while I love watching the speed he gets doing so - is what worries me the most. He makes great speed up there, but there is so little room for error, especially in the COT, which seems to be more difficult to drive and for Junior to adapt to. A bright side to the COT is that it sure can take some abuse, including a couple good scrapes of the wall, so that helps.

    Bottom line - more focus in Junior, a fleet of Lance McGrew built cars, better feedback, and a whole lot of luck and Junior will be contending for race wins, and hopefully a spot in the Chase in 2010.

  8. Michael Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    One other point - where were all the articles about Harvick’s equally (or more-so) dismal season this year? Sometimes there’s too much focus on the 88 unfortunately.

  9. Gina Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I thought it was a well presented article. All fans defend their favorite driver, that’s why we’re fans. I’m not a Jr fan and I have always thought that NASCAR put too much emphasis on him being the big draw. How about focus on making the racing more exciting for the fans, rather than a high speed parade? That might make fans more interested again.

    Personally I hate the idea that Hendrick is going to make Jr his top priority. My favorite driver is an HMS driver and to me this smacks of favoritism. Heck Johnson has won 4 straight chases, but Gordon has had his own troubles with the POS car, so why not focus on the 24 team? Oh wait, that’s not as important as ANYTHING that relates to Jr.

  10. JR Fan Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    I would like to respond to Ginger first of all. I am a die hard Jr Fan, but the article is about as spot on as possible. Jr missed his pit numerous times and at the end of 2007 GM, Haas and Stewart were not even an issue. This was all brought on at the end of last year. After correcting that, I would really like to know what else is wrong with this article in your eyes? Jr did in fact make a lot of mistakes this year, granted there were instances where he did not have the car to run up front or ended up with mechanical problems, more than not it was his own doing. I love rooting for Jr, but at the same time when he is running at the top of the track all the time he is more prone to making mistakes and tearing up his car. As a Jr fan, it is those of you who want to lay blame with everyone but him who give us true fans of him and the sport a bad name with those Jr haters. If you are unable to make a valid argument then I ask you to please keep your comments and opinions to yourself.

    Richard, great article and keep up the objective reporting!!!

  11. yankeegranny Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Where is your proof that Jr was not running an r/d car for a good part of the season? Rick Hendricks has said, that he did not pay as much attention to the 88 as he could have. I don’t think that any of the other drivers have had as many “car” problems that had nothing to do with the driver. this past year. And Jr is not the only driver who had pit row provblems; he is just the only dirver that the media focuses on. I do cringe when I see him running right up close to the wall, but when he does it well, there is nobody else as good as he is at it. I think that 2010 will be a great improvement for the 88.

  12. Marybeth Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I agree with Ginger. “This column if filled with so much misinformation I couldn’t possibly reply to all.”
    I also don’t think HMS should make JR. his 1st priority. I think he should let him go, for Jr.’s sake. This has been 2 dismal years and it is obviously not working. Get out NOW, Jr.
    With all of his other awards, RH has earned an Oscar. He had me believing whatever he said for 2 years. Until Charlotte this fall when they gave Jr. junk to drive. Last spring Nascar Now started reporting that Tony Jr. was making Jr.’s car with 2007 DEI spec cars. When he was removed, RH said that he was going to ‘fix’ Jr.’s cars. I believed him. During the week the crew chiefs were switched, Nascar Now reported that since Jr.’s cars sent to Dover were the old T. Jr. cars and that HMS sent a truck with 2 of the newer HMS chassis to switch out. Those cars never made it to Dover. Instead they made a big deal out of the ‘brains’ at HMS were working on Jr.’s car…the OLD chassis cars. Carol Einarsson on !2/3/09 said “Biggest Disappointment - Rick Hendrick’s unwillingness to do what it takes to get Junior in the same equipment that Jimmie Johnson is in. Some have grumbled certain accusations that at first left me wondering, but I’ve since come on board 100% to believe - he doesn’t care if Junior wins or not because the sponsor dollars and souvenir revenues are there regardless. And really, you’re Rick Hendrick and you can make history with a four-in-a-row champ, or spend your company resources on a guy who remains popular whether he wins or not — what do you do? “
    Lance made 2, 1 1/2 track cars. The first was used at Indy. Jr. ran very well, until the engine blew. They get to Charlotte, instead of using one of the new cars that he ran much better in, they used the car he finished 27th in at Pocono in June, and 36th at Charlotte in the fall of 2008. Where were his 2 newer cars? Was Brad driving one? Martinsville the camber was wrong and it was a lot of blown tires. They ran Jr. out of gas at Texas. At Phoenix, another old T.Jr. car, they knew he had an oil leak, loose oil fittings and sent back out on the track…to wreck? Jr. said that he needs a dictator for a cc, I think that he needs a cc that he can have confidence, especially going into a corner at 200mph. With all of the money Jr. is bringing into HMS one would think that they would hire a top tier crew chief, like Addington. It isn’t going to happen.
    When all of this with Jr. leaving DEI and going to HMS started, someone on one of these blogs said that what was really going on was that RH was trying to control all of the drivers better than Jimmie to take away his competition. He already controled Jeff. 2 years ago he got Jr. under his control, and last year he got Tony under his control. Tony ran great this year…until the Chase. Then he fell right off. Not the same equipment JJ was getting? I figure that they gave Jr. junk to qualify and drive at Charlotte so he could not be any competition to win over JJ, and he wasn’t. That is when I quit believing RH. But give the man an Oscar. He had me believing him for 2 years. I found myself looking at the circumstances for 2 years and they somehow did not make sense. That was the time I realized that I needed to look at these same circumstances from a slightly different perspective, and then things started to make sense.
    This has not worked out for Jr. at HMS, for what ever reason. 2 years is a more than fair trial. It is obvious to everyone that this is not working. Dale Jr. needs to be freed from HMS. RCR stepped up his game and fielded 4 competitive cars. HMS, for all of their vaunted resources and depth can’t…?
    RH has certainly let enough other drivers go and it is time for him to let Jr. go. Maybe Jr. needs to study what KB did and imitate it. :) Maybe he was at Homestead? KB’s wins did not take off until he went to Gibbs. Getting out of HMS was the best thing that ever happened to him. He could be driving the HMS R&D car for Jimmie.
    DEI’s Jeff, said that they would welcome Jr. back with open arms. I am sure that he could be more competitive there! Surely Chevy would like to see Jr. run competitively again. They have to realize that this isn’t working out at HMS and want him out front selling Chevys for them again.
    In 2007 in F1, Alonso moved to McLaren. It became apparent by summer that the role FA had envisioned for himself, the 1st driver, when he signed the contract, was different from the one Ron Dennis saw, 2nd to Hamilton. RD realized that this is not what FA had signed the contract for and that he was not being fair to FA and was able to man-up and gentleman enough, fair enough, to let FA go after only 1 year on his contract. Hopefully RH can rise to the same standard.

    Marybeth

  13. Marybeth Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    …and…last summer Jr. was second in points…in a COT.
    Marybeth

  14. The Old Guy Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Both Marybeth and Ginger are part of the legion of Jr. fans who believe Jr.’s failures are the fault of someone else.

    At DEI, his failures were the fault of the “Evil Stepmother”, Teresa Earhardt and the were happy that Jr. had mad the decision to move to HMS. Where, in error, they all declared that Jr. would win multiple races and a Championship in no more than two years.

    Move forward to HMS…. It has now, according to Ginger and Marybeth, become the fault of Rick Hendrick that Jr. is failing miserably.

    Richard has hit the nail squarely on the head. Teresa Earnhardt hit it a couple of years back and was crucified by Jr. fans for daring to question Jr.’s focus or ability.

    There is no “mis-information” in Richards column. Instead, it is a well thought out, very too the point, assissment of Jr.’s career. Once Jr.s popularity rose, and he felt that Teresa “owed him”, he thought the he could wrangle DEI away from her.

    Can you imagine Tony Stewart (Who in reality, made JGR what it is today.) demanding controlling interest from Joe Gibbs?

    Dale Earnhardt did not leave DEI to Jr. or his sister and all of the speculation in the world about what he wanted means nothing. He left DEI, part and parcel, to his wife.

    What can fix Jr.? Can Jr., in fact, be fixed.

    I think Jr. can be fixed.

    Here’s how.

    Rick Hendrick needs to convince Jr. to give up his Nite Club in Charlotte. He needs to convince Jr. to cut back on his commercials and personal appearances. Both of these to help him regain his focus on what he’s supposed to be doing. Driving his race car and winning with it.

    The most important thing that Rick Hendrick could do, if he can accompish the two prior items, is to put Tony Eury Sr. in charge of Jr. and the 88 team. I believe that only Tony Sr. has the influence with Jr. to get him headed in the right direction.

    I’ve been a NASCAR fan for more than 50 years. I’ve sen the great ones ( Dale Sr. is included in that group although I do not consider him NASCAR’s greatest driver ever.) come and go during that period of time. However, I’ve never seen such and underachiever recieve the promotion and accolades that Jr. has recieved since is father died.

    Jr. is not, and will never be, a great race car driver. he can, and may once again become, a good race car driver should Rick Hendrick compel him to make the right choices. I personally don’t belive that Rick Hendrick will be able to influece Jr. to give up his distractions and regain the focus he needs.

    Finally, and once again for Ginger and Marybeth, it’s not Rick Hendrick at fault. It’s not the equipment at fault. The failures lie squarely on the shoulder of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and no one else.

  15. Dave Says:
    December 9th, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    “Also, by listening to Trackpass and a scanner when actually attending the races, I have found that Junior offers far less feedback to his crew than any of the other HMS drivers. It seems as if the crew chief, no matter who it may be, is often left guessing as to what the car needs.”

    DING, DING, DING, we have a winner! This is one of the biggest differences between Jr and the elite drivers. Busch brothers aside, most of the great ones in todays racing are competant diagnosticians of what they feel in the car and can succinctly relay that information to the CC. Gordon and Johnson are two of the best, if not THE best at that very attribute. A symptom of poor-quality feedback is fading late in the race as the better drivers and CCs adjust on their cars.

  16. Gail Forrester Says:
    December 10th, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Ginger, dear, my favorite driver of all time went for SEVEN years without a win, so I know better than you what it is like to go through that. As far as the bond between a driver and his fans, yes, we DID stick with him through the seven winless years and yes, we did vote him MPD every one of those years. And yes, eventually, he won again and it was sweeter than ever. So stick with Jr., but please don’t knock those of us who are fed up with the whole issue of “fixing Junior.” At some point, he has to fix himself.

    Kyle learned to do that in the NW series this year when he took all those second place finishes and turned them into a championship. We still have to see if Junior has learned anything from his difficulties. And I will not respond in kind by calling you or Junior “stupid.” Just immature.

  17. Sam Wright Says:
    December 11th, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Danica on Dale Jr’s team will make for a money making magnet; sounds like a good move by Nascar at least in terms of ticket sales